Miliband backs decision to free Megrahi

Foreign Secretary makes 'no apology' for improving relations with Tripoli
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Indy Politics

Keeping the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in prison would have damaged British interests, foreign secretary David Miliband has said.

He insisted that no pressure had been placed on the Scottish Executive to free Mr Megrahi but told the House of Commons that the UK government "had a responsibility" to consider the consequences of the decision.

The decision by Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Justice Secretary, to free the only man convicted of the bombing of Pan AM flight 103 in 1988 provoked an international furore in August.

William Hague, the Conservative shadow foreign secretary, renewed calls for an inquiry into how the decision to free Mr Megrahi was conducted but was rebuffed by Mr Miliband.

In his Commons statement on the release the foreign secretary told MPs he wanted to address the "unfounded allegation" that Britain had ignored Libya's past support for terrorism or that it had forgotten about IRA victims or the family of murdered Wpc Yvonne Fletcher. He said Lockerbie "remains a testament to Libya's past association with international terrorism" but he made "no apology" for improving relations with Tripoli over the last decade.

Mr Miliband said: "The UK Government had a responsibility to consider the consequences of any Scottish decision. Although the decision was not one for the UK Government, British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation would be damaged... if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison.

"We made it clear to them it was not a decision for the UK Government and as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi's death in Scottish custody."

Mr Hague agreed that the improvement in relations with Libya was welcome progress but maintained it was not an excuse for releasing the convicted bomber.

"It is our view that the release of Megrahi... was a mistake and indeed the episode was characterised by obfuscation and confusion on the part of ministers here at Westminster and it damaged the standing of this country in the United States," he said.

He observed that it seemed "bizarre" that it should be decided the bomber could not be part of a prisoner transfer agreement because it would breach assurances given to the United States yet it was deemed justifiable to release him. "Would it not have been sensible to conclude that if it was not appropriate to return him to Libya as a prisoner it was even more inappropriate to release him as a free man?" he said.

Ed Davey, for the Liberal Democrats, said that the release illustrated that in Mr Megrahi's case "trade came before justice". He also hit out at the Government's "failure" to secure compensation from Libya for IRA bomb victims and he urged the foreign secretary to encourage Libya to "clean up its act" on human rights.

Tory Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Scottish Secretary at the time of the Lockerbie bombing, recalled travelling to the crash site on the night of the disaster in 1988. "Never did I expect that the person convicted of murdering 200 people would be released and sent home, after having served only eight of a 27-year minimum sentence." he said.

He accused Mr Miliband of paying "more attention to the views of the Libyan government... than to the views of the US". Reacting to fears that Mr Megrahi may not have been as ill as had been claimed, Labour's Tom Levitt suggested compassionate release may be an "effective cure for cancer".