Government ministers in Scotland have been urged to listen to the country's own politicians rather than Hillary Clinton over the future of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, who is looking to leave jail on compassionate grounds.
While Mrs Clinton, the US Secretary of State, made a special call to the Scottish Justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, to urge him to keep Megrahi in prison, MSPs said there needed to be a debate in the Scottish Parliament rather than "secret briefings and international cloak and dagger" over the highly sensitive case.
Megrahi, 57, the only man to be convicted in connection with the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, in Dumfries and Galloway, in which 270 people died, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Last month he asked the Scottish government to show mercy and let him return to die in his native Libya.
Next Tuesday, lawyers for Megrahi are expected to formally withdraw his appeal against conviction, removing the final barrier to him being transferred to a Libyan prison to serve the remainder of his life sentence. US State Department officials said that Mrs Clinton, who made her intervention last Friday, believes Megrahi should continue to serve his sentence in Scotland.
Bill Aitken, the Conservative justice spokesman in the Scottish Parliament, said yesterday: "Obviously the vast majority of the victims of the outrage were Americans, and Mrs Clinton is entitled to express a view. At the same time it is a Scottish decision but I certainly do not resent her input.
"We need clarity to replace confusion. The Justice Secretary must come before Parliament at the earliest opportunity and explain just what has been going on. Any decision about a release on compassionate grounds must be made without special deals and on compelling medical evidence."
The Scottish Parliament is closed for recess and no debate over the case is currently scheduled.
Mr Aitken added: "The Lockerbie atrocity cannot descend into this kind of diplomacy by spin and stealth. The Lockerbie bomber has been convicted by a Scottish court. Mr Megrahi must be treated the same as any other prisoner in a Scottish jail."
Mr MacAskill, who recently visited Megrahi in Greenock Prison, has said he will come to a decision by the end of the month. He can send Megrahi to serve his sentence in a Libyan prison – a move once favoured by the Libyan government but made impossible by Megrahi's two appeals against his conviction. Megrahi's law firm, Taylor & Kelly, said their client's condition had in recent weeks taken a "significant turn for the worse".
If Megrahi's appeal is withdrawn in the High Court in Edinburgh next Tuesday, one of the last opportunities for scrutiny of the case in a courtroom is likely to be lost. Questions about whether Megrahi acted alone or was possibly a victim of a miscarriage of justice could remain unanswered. He has always protested his innocence and, although relatives of American victims hold him to blame, many relatives of British victims believe the full story behind the bombing has never been properly explained.
A spokesman for the Scottish government said: "The Secretary of State contacted the Cabinet Secretary after the media speculation and Mr MacAskill, who has spoken to all the interested parties, was able to confirm he is still considering matters."