- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2009


EDINBURGH, Scotland — Scotland’s justice minister on Monday defended his much-criticized decision to free the Lockerbie bomber, as the U.S. State Department said that though it disagreed “passionately” the move would not affect relations between America and Britain.

The Scottish administration has faced unrelenting criticism from the both the U.S. government and the families of American victims of the 1988 airline bombing since it announced last week it was freeing Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The terminally ill al-Megrahi, who has prostate cancer, returned to his native Libya on Thursday, where he was greeted by crowds waving Libyan and Scottish flags.

The United States will stand by Britain, even though it believes the decision was a mistake, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

“We made it quite clear that we disagreed passionately with this decision, because we thought it sent the wrong signal to, not only the families, but also to terrorists, But I really discourage you from thinking that we necessarily have to have some kind of tit-for-tat retaliation because of it. I just don’t see it — not with Britain. Not with Scotland either,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s words follow days of criticism from top U.S. officials.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill doggedly defended the decision Monday, but said Libya had broken a promise by giving the convicted terrorist a hero’s welcome. Scottish lawmakers came back from summer vacation a week early for an emotional debate on the issue.

Britain, meanwhile, scrapped a trade visit to Libya by Prince Andrew amid controversy over the release.

MacAskill said the warm homecoming for al-Megrahi breached assurances from Libyan authorities that “any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion.”

“It is a matter of great regret that Mr. (al-) Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner,” MacAskill told the Scottish parliament. “It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie.”

A member of the Libyan government’s negotiating team who took part in the talks about al-Megrahi’s release told the Associated Press that the Libyan government had not organized al-Megrahi’s reception and had not broken any agreement with Scotland. The official did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

He said no government official met al-Megrahi at the airport and pointed out that Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who traveled with al-Megrahi on the plane, is not a government official.

The official said the crowd that threw rose petals and cheered al-Megrahi at the airport heard of his return through the media and spontaneously chose to greet him, he said.

By Libyan standards, al-Megrahi’s welcome was relatively muted. Hundreds of people waiting in the crowd for his plane were rushed away by authorities at the last minute, and the arrival was not aired live on state TV.

Back in Scotland, MacAskill said his decision to free al Megrahi “was not based on political, economic or diplomatic considerations.”

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

The decision has prompted calls for a trade boycott of Scotland and widespread criticism of the nationalist government in Edinburgh.

Scottish people were ashamed “to see our flag flying to welcome a convicted bomber home,” Labour legislator Iain Gray told the parliament.

In a strongly worded letter to the Scottish government, FBI director Robert Mueller said al-Megrahi’s release gave comfort to terrorists, while Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said releasing the bomber was “obviously a political decision.”

The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed all 259 people on the plane — most of them American — and 11 people on the ground. Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, is the only person convicted of the bombing.

Compassionate release is a regular feature of the Scottish system when a prisoner is near death. Of the 31 applications over the last decade, 24 prisoners have been freed on compassionate grounds in Scotland, including al-Megrahi. Another seven applications were turned down because the medical evidence did not support the claim.

Top British cancer specialists say al-Megrahi has less than three months to live.

Scotland is part of Britain but has its own parliament — established in 1999 — with power over large areas of policy, including justice, health and education. The British Parliament in London retains primacy on all matters relating to Britain as a whole, such as defense, energy and foreign relations.

Scotland’s nationalist administration has vowed to hold a referendum on full independence from Britain. Some lawmakers have called for MacAskill to resign over his decision. No vote was taken during Monday’s 75-minute session, but some Scottish politicians say they will seek a confidence vote when the parliament begins its fall session next week — one that could potentially bring down the minority government.

The British government has fiercely refuted claims that al-Megrahi’s release was intended to boost business ties between Britain and Libya, which has vast oil reserves. Such suspicions were heightened after Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi thanked Brown and Queen Elizabeth II by name for “encouraging” the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the suggestion there had been a deal was “completely implausible and actually quite offensive.”

Kelly said the U.S. was not aware that any commercial interests between Britain and Libya played a role in the decision to release al-Megrahi.

“You have multiple senior British officials who have denied this. And I will take what they said on face value,” Kelly said.

He warned that the U.S. relationship with Libya now depended in part on how Libya handles the situation.

“We had made it quite clear to the Libyan government, both publicly and privately, that we’re going to be watching very closely how they receive this man,” he said. “And if they continue to lionize him in a public fashion, that these kinds of public demonstrations can only have a profoundly negative effect on our relationship.”

Prince Andrew has visited Libya several times in his role as a British trade ambassador and his office said last week that a trip for next month was in the planning stages. But Buckingham Palace said Monday there were no plans now for the prince to visit Libya.

A spokesman for Brown said al-Megrahi’s release was “a uniquely sensitive and difficult decision” — and one for Scottish officials.

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Khaled El-Deeb in Tripoli contributed to this report.

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