Salmond fights critics of Megrahi’s release

First minister blocks call for debate over man found guilty of Lockerbie bombing
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Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, is set to block attempts to recall the Scottish Parliament after opposition MPs demanded an urgent debate on the fate of the Lockerbie bomber.

Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, has promised to make a final decision over the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi within the next two weeks. The Libyan, who is suffering from advanced prostate cancer, could be set free and returned to his home nation on compassionate grounds.

But Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, who are furious at the SNP Government's handling of the case, have demanded an emergency session of parliament so that Mr MacAskill can be quizzed on his decision. Megrahi is currently serving a life sentence for his involvement in Britain's worst terrorist attack. He is the only person to have been convicted for the bombing, which killed 270 people in 1988.

Mr MacAskill provoked fierce criticism for visiting Megrahi at Greenock Prison recently, while Megrahi's decision to drop the appeal against his conviction fuelled speculation that a deal had been agreed over his release. It also led to the intervention of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who voiced her opposition to the prospect of releasing him.

Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has now written to the parliament's presiding officer, Alex Ferguson, demanding an emergency session. While Mr Ferguson has the power to recall parliament, he is only likely to do so with the support of all party leaders.

"This should have been a judicial decision, but the SNP has turned this into media circus and it now looks like a political decision," Mr Scott said. "The Justice Secretary needs to explain his actions to Parliament. The eyes of the world are on the Scottish Government and they are being found wanting. MSPs need to come back to Holyrood to debate this issue. Parliament must be recalled."

Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, backed the need for an immediate debate, which he said was needed in the light of Mr MacAskill's "unwise" meeting with Megrahi. "There are serious questions over the way the Scottish Government has handled this process, and we need to have answers in Parliament," he said.

The Tory's justice spokesman, Bill Aitken, called on Mr Salmond to take responsibility for the decision. "However hard it may be for Mr Salmond, an immediate decision needs to be taken," he said. "When it is, the First Minister must re-call the Scottish Parliament to

justify his actions." He added that only "compelling" medical evidence should lead to Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds. "The last thing that the families of the victims need is to see the Lockerbie bomber paraded through the streets of Tripoli like a national hero," he said.

However, Scottish Government sources said that Mr MacAskill would not be reconvening parliament early to report on the case, but would make a statement upon its return next month. "It's not a parliamentary decision – it's a decision for the Justice Secretary to take in a quasi-judicial capacity, said a spokesman for the Justice Secretary. "He is then entirely open and accountable to Parliament. We would fully expect a statement from the Justice Secretary when Parliament returns."

Mr MacAskill received final submissions and advice from officials on the case on Friday. He has now cancelled all his scheduled appointments for the week as he prepares to make his final ruling. His decision will come before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, was also caught up in the row yesterday after it emerged that he had briefly discussed the case with Colonel Gaddafi's son while on holiday in Corfu. His conversation with the Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, came just a week before it emerged Megrahi could be released. "There was a fleeting conversation about the prisoner. Peter was completely unsighted on the subject," a spokesman for the Business Secretary said.

Alistair Darling, who is in charge of the Government this week while Gordon Brown is on holiday, said he would not interfere in the case. "That has got to be a matter for the Scottish Justice Secretary," he said.