Scottish Justice Secretary Defends Libyan's Release

In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009, Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, gestures on his arrival at an airport in Tripoli, Libya. Britain has condemned the
In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009, Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, gestures on his arrival at an airport in Tripoli, Libya. Britain has condemned the "upsetting" scenes of jubilation in Tripoli at the return of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and considered canceling a royal visit to Libya as a sign of displeasure. (AP Photo) (AP)

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By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

LONDON, Aug. 24 -- Under sharp questioning from legislative critics, the Scottish justice secretary on Monday defended his decision to free the man convicted of the Lockerbie airliner bombing, declaring that his decision was based on compassion for the terminally ill man and not on "political, economic or diplomatic considerations."

U.S. officials and relatives of American victims of the 1988 Pan Am jetliner bombing have criticized Scottish authorities for releasing Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent who was convicted in 2001 for his role in the airline bombing that killed 270 people. Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, was released Thursday.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the Scottish Parliament focused on the international uproar over the case, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said Megrahi was released for humanitarian reasons. He rejected suggestions that his decision was influenced by Britain's diplomatic and commercial dealings with oil-rich Libya.

"This was my decision and my decision alone. I stand by it and I will live with the consequences," he said.

Megrahi was greeted in Libya last week by jubilant throngs waving flags. MacAskill told Scottish lawmakers the celebratory scene was "inappropriate," and breached assurances from Libya that the return would be dealt with "in a low-key and sensitive fashion."

Tavish Scott, leader of Scotland's Liberal Democrats, said Megrahi's release had "split our country within itself, and split our nation from many international friends."

International criticism, particularly from the United States, was more emphatic.

John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Monday: "For sure, there was no 'deal' between [British Prime Minister Gordon] Brown and [Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi or their underlings, no signed contract, no express quid pro quo between Megrahi's release and business for Britain. In reality, of course, that is not the way it's done. All denials of such an explicit transaction are probably 'the truth', but not the whole truth."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) told CNN the allegations that the decision was linked to commercial interests were "hanging so heavily in the air that I hope that our friends in Britain will convene an independent investigation of this action by the Scottish justice minister to release a mass murderer."

Brown has declined to comment, insisting through a spokesman that the case is for authorities in Scotland, which has a separate legal system. But the British government has denied allegations that Megrahi's release was meant to bolster trade with Libya. Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, has called the suggestions "offensive."

In an interview broadcast over the weekend, Gaddafi thanked his "friend" Brown, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Andrew for their roles in releasing the former agent. Prince Andrew, Britain's special representative for international trade and investment, was planning a trip to Libya in September, according to the BBC. On Monday, Buckingham Palace announced that there are no plans for the prince to visit Libya.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, said in an interview broadcast on Libyan television the day after the release that "in all commercial contracts, for oil and gas with Britain, [Megrahi] was always on the negotiating table."

According to UK Trade and Investment, about 150 British businesses operate in Libya, including British Petroleum and Shell, an Anglo-Dutch company, which both have signed large exploration deals with Libya's state-owned oil company.

Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East specialist at City University in London, said Libyan businessmen would almost always bring up Megrahi in negotiations, "especially to the British companies. They'd say, 'Well, you know, until we get some satisfaction on the Megrahi issue, we're not overly enthusiastic to make things easy for you.' "

Critics of Megrahi's release are calling for a boycott of Scottish and British goods and have a Web site at http://www.boycottscotland.com.


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