Henry McLeish: 'Freeing Lockerbie bomber Megrahi was the right decision'

A former Labour First Minister of Scotland today backed the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

Amid a deepening international backlash over the move, Henry McLeish broke ranks with party colleagues to say the decision by SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was "probably the right decision made for the right reasons".

He is the first senior Labour figure to publicly back the decision to free Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

Jack McConnell, who succeeded Mr McLeish, yesterday called the move "inexplicable".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has yet to express a view despite calls for him to make his position clear.

Mr McLeish spoke out as Kenny MacAskill prepared to face his political opponents in the Scottish Parliament when MSPs gather for an emergency debate.

Today's special session of the Scottish Parliament, recalled a week early to discuss the issue, will hear a statement by Mr MacAskill, who will then be questioned.

Mr McLeish, who resigned in 2001, told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "If you look at the issue in the context of the criminal justice system and the independent legal system that we have, this is probably the right decision made for the right reasons."

He said he hoped the Scottish Parliament would focus on two issues - the process of taking the decision, and the decision itself.

Mr McLeish also criticised the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, who launched a blistering attack on the decision in a letter to Mr MacAskill.

He said: "The intervention of the director of the FBI was totally out of order.

"It would be the equivalent of the Metropolitan police chief writing to Barack Obama to complain about a decision."

He said Mr Mueller's criticism was "ill-informed" and added: "Quite frankly, it's none of his business.

"He has a view - fine.

"But that was a slur on the Scottish criminal justice system that we did not deserve."

There will be no vote following today's debate, and opposition politicians appeared to be in no hurry to table a no-confidence motion in Mr MacAskill - a move which, if it succeeded, could bring down the Government.

Scottish Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker told the programme: "Today is about asking questions of Kenny MacAskill.

"I have said before that he should resign on other issues, and this has been an act of unpardonable folly by the Scottish Government and by Mr MacAskill.

"But today is about showing the world that Kenny MacAskill did not speak for Scotland in making this decision."

Scottish Liberal Democrat chief whip Mike Rumbles said his party would seek to have a debate and vote on the decision when Parliament returns next week from the summer recess - "so that Scotland's position can be heard".

He went on: "We want Kenny MacAskill to listen to the debate we hopefully have next week and the vote, and that he does the decent thing".

Tory Bill Aitken said: "I think the question of resignations is at this stage premature."

The Scottish Government has faced a torrent of criticism, particularly from American relatives of Lockerbie victims, over its decision to free Megrahi.

The criticism mounted after Megrahi, terminally ill with prostate cancer, was given a hero's reception when he returned to Tripoli on Thursday night.

A website boycottscotland.com has been set up with the message: "We urge all Americans to protest this action by boycotting the United Kingdom and Scotland in full."

Mr Mueller, a former US prosecutor who played a key role in the investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 270 people, wrote to Mr MacAskill saying: "Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice.

"Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world."

First Minister Alex Salmond has insisted it was the right decision, made for the right reasons, and made in line with Scottish law and after widespread consultations.

Mr McLeish, a former home affairs minister at the pre-devolution Scottish Office, said he hoped "partisan politics" would not obscure the serious issues to be discussed today in Parliament.

He also backed calls for decisions of the type that Mr MacAskill faced to be taken out of the hands of politicians.

"I have had experience myself as home affairs minister between 1997 and 1999," he said.

"I wasn't dealing with issues of global significance but I was asked to release murderers, rapists, people dealing in some heinous crimes.

"I often wondered, why me, as part of the judicial process?"

Mr McLeish also questioned the extent of the American backlash, saying this was not reflected in major newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times.

He said the US had a "punitive" culture and went on: "It's valid for them to make comment.

"But I just think we are talking ourselves into a state of despair about what will happen in terms of trade and the special relationship."

Further criticism came today from a retired Lockerbie detective who called the decision naive and a "mistake".

Stuart Henderson, a former detective chief superintendent with the Lothian and Borders force, told The Scotsman: "It was a very unfortunate mistake to make.

"It should not have been handled that way and I feel sorry for Mr MacAskill's naivety about what has happened."

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the Prime Minister's silence on Megrahi's release was "absurd and damaging".

He said: "Although the decision to release Megrahi was a Scottish one for which Gordon Brown was not personally responsible, the fallout puts the UK at the centre of an international storm.

"In these circumstances, it is absurd and damaging that the British Prime Minister simply remains silent in the hope that someone else will take the flak."