MacAskill defends Lockerbie bomber's release

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The Scottish Justice Secretary faced down a barrage of angry criticism from members of the Scottish Parliament today amid mounting dismay over his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

Speaking to a specially re-called sitting of the parliament, Kenny MacAskill accused Libya of reneging on a promise not to honour the return of Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi with a hero’s welcome. But he insisted that despite the jubilant scenes at Tripoli airport the release of the terminally-ill former intelligence officer on compassionate grounds had been the right thing to do.

Mr MacAskill answered dozens of questions from MSPs furious at his handling of the affair as the former lawyer battled to save his own political career and shore up support for the minority Scottish National Party administration led by Alex Salmond who sat next to him throughout the impassioned hour-long session.

He described the homecoming in Libya in which cheering crowds waved saltires as a matter of “great regret” adding that the authorities showed “no compassion or sensitivity” to the families of the victims of Lockerbie. He echoed comments from Downing Street that the celebrations breached promises made by Colonel Gaddafi. “Assurances had been given by the Libyan Government that any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion,” he told a packed chamber.

Nonetheless Mr MacAskill repeated almost word for word his statement last week in which he outlined his motives for allowing Megrahi to return home to die – a move which has caused an outpouring of fury and anguish among relatives of the American victims, fierce criticism from the highest level of the United States administration and anger at home.

Tonight a mission to Libya by the Duke of York, who has visited the oil-rich country several times in his role as a British trade ambassador, was scrapped making it the first casualty of the affair. Megrahi, 57, is the only person to be convicted of the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988 in which 270 people died including 189 Americans, the worst atrocity ever carried out on British soil. He was freed still vehemently protesting his innocence having dropped his appeal after serving less than eight years in a Scottish jail when a team of doctors treating him for terminal prostate cancer concluded he had less than three months to live.

Mr MacAskill, who until last week was virtually unheard of outside his native Scotland, maintained that he enjoyed the support of senior religious leaders as well as the backing of major political figures including former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Steel.

He once again took personal responsibility for his decision and insisted he had not come under any political pressure to sign the release papers. “It was based on the law of Scotland, and the values I believe we seek to uphold. It was not based on political, diplomatic or economic considerations,” said Mr MacAskill. “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live,” he added.

However, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray accused the Justice Secretary of mishandling the affair and said he had overlooked the rights of the victims’ relatives and wider society not least in his decision to meet Megrahi to hear his appeal for release personally. "Does he understand how ashamed we were to see our flag flying to welcome a convicted bomber home? Does he understand how astonished we were when he visited a convicted murderer in prison? said Mr Gray.

Tory leader Annabel Goldie suggested Megrahi could have been released from prison to receive treatment in a hospice or safe house under the protection of the police. “I want to make clear that the decision to release Mr Megrahi was not done in the name of Scotland or in the name of this Parliament or in my name,” she told MSPs.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Tavish Scott said Megrahi’s release had damaged Scotland’s international reputation as well as faith in the justice system at home. “Doesn't Kenny MacAskill's comment on the need for Scottish compassion mean that no prisoner - however bad their crime - will ever have a request turned down?" he said.

The Lib Dems are expected to table a vote next week condemning the decision which – if lost - could force Mr MacAskill to resign.