Scotland Official Defends Lockerbie Handling

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Scotland's justice secretary defended his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber on humanitarian grounds. Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released last week because he is terminally ill with prostate cancer. His return to Libya was met with celebrations at home and criticism overseas.


The controversy intensified today over the release of the Libyan man convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland. Some American relatives of the victims called for a boycott of Scottish goods. And in Edinburgh, Scotland's justice minister again defended his decision to release the bomber.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: Anger has risen at home and abroad at Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill's decision to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last Thursday. The Scottish Parliament was recalled early from vacation for an emergency debate. Today, MacAskill reiterated that he'd released al-Megrahi, who's dying of cancer on compassionate grounds and denied it was based on any political, economic or diplomatic considerations. But he did add that the hero's welcome that al-Megrahi received in Tripoli had breached assurances he had received from the Libyan government.

Mr. KENNY MACASKILL (Justice Minister, Scotland): It is a matter of great regret that Mr. al-Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner. It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie. Assurances had been given by the Libyan government that any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion.

GIFFORD: MacAskill's decision has been called the most controversial ever made by the Scottish government since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament 10 years ago. The British Parliament at Westminster still makes all decisions relating to the United Kingdom as a whole on issues such as defense, energy and foreign relations. But the Scottish Parliament has power over large areas of domestic policy including health, education and justice. There's as much politicking in Holyrood, as it's known, as there is in Westminster. And sensing political blood, opposition politicians peppered MacAskill with questions and criticism. Tavish Scott is the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Scotland.

Mr. TAVISH SCOTT (Leader, Liberal Democratic Party in Scotland): What the first minister and his government have done is to split Scotland, split our country within itself, and split our nation from many international friends. Next week, Colonel Gadaffi can parade al-Megrahi as part of his 40th anniversary celebrations.

GIFFORD: The one politician to remain silent seems to be British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who cannot have been pleased when Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi thanked him by name for, as he put it, encouraging the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi. If Brown were publicly to support the Scottish decision, he risks further annoying the United States. If he criticizes the decision, he could damage trade with Libya, which many say is the reason for al-Megrahi's release. The British government has fiercely denied such claims but Oliver Miles, deputy chairman of the Libyan British Business Council and a former British ambassador to Libya, says there's no doubt that business ties must have been part of the decision.

Mr. OLIVER MILES (Deputy Chairman, Libyan British Business Council): I believe that the Libyans told the British side repeatedly that if Megrahi had died in prison that would've been a very serious setback to our trade relations and our relations generally. I accept that is the case. I think there would've been all hell to pay.

GIFFORD: As it turned out, there has been hell to pay for the Scottish government, at least in terms of criticism from America. But Scottish ministers are answerable to the people of Scotland and so far at least, Scots seemed to be divided on whether al-Megrahi should have been released.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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