Leading article: A suspicious reticence

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The Independent Online

For a man in the epicentre of an international storm, the previously little-known Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill made a reasonable job in the Scottish Parliament yesterday of defending his decision to free the alleged Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

Speaking more as a lawyer than a politician, he argued that any terminally ill prisoner should be shown compassion, even if they have shown none to others. He asserted that he had arrived at the decision to release Megrahi alone, free from political pressure, and denied that doubts about Megrahi's guilt or worries about his upcoming appeal had played any part.

It would have been pointlessly cruel to insist that Megrahi die of cancer in a prison cell, but the weak point in Mr MacAskill's performance was when he tried to explain why the prisoner was not moved to a secure address in Scotland where his family could be with him in his final days. Mr MacAskill said he knew nothing about a promise the US authorities say they were given, that the world's only convicted Lockerbie bomber would serve his sentence in Scotland – a promise which, if made, has been broken. He said he relied on the advice of the Deputy Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police that keeping the sick man in Scotland would be a security problem. It seems odd that a policeman should have the decisive say on a matter of such sensitivity.

Meanwhile, if Gordon Brown has an opinion on Megrahi's release, he is not sharing it with the rest of us. The suspicion must be that the PM is so reticent because it suits his government that a minister from the SNP has shouldered the decision. It would have set back the UK's steadily improving diplomatic and trade relations with oil-rich Libya if Megrahi died in Scotland. Instead, he is off Britain's hands, and the SNP must take the political flak.

Seen through the windows of the Foreign Office, only one thing spoilt this satisfactory outcome – those unexpectedly provocative pictures of Megrahi's triumphal reception in Tripoli, which have inflamed American opinion.