Scottish minister faces grilling over al-Megrahi release

Scotland’s justice secretary faces a grilling in the Scottish Parliament on Monday over his decision to free the convicted Lockerbie bomber—and the ensuing backlash.

Kenny MacAskill is likely to face fierce criticism from opposition parties when he makes an emergency statement to Parliament, reconvening a week early at 2.30pm (13.30GMT).

A little-known figure before deciding to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, MacAskill now finds himself at the centre of a growing international storm which could damage Edinburgh’s relations with Washington—and possibly even the stability of the Scottish government.

In the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the head of the FBI and the victims’ families have all criticised al-Megrahi’s release, with websites emerging urging a boycott of Scottish goods.

Al-Megrahi (57) is the only person convicted over the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The majority of the 270 victims were American.

The Libyan was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 over the worst terror attack in British history, but served just eight years before his release on Thursday on compassionate grounds because of his terminal prostate cancer.

The fall-out could have serious repercussions for the Scottish National Party (SNP) government and is by far the toughest challenge the SNP has faced since taking office in 2007—which could go further if a no-confidence motion is put forward.

The SNP to which MacAskill belongs, a left-wing party seeking independence for Scotland, runs a minority administration in Holyrood, the semi-autonomous Edinburgh Parliament.

Among other matters, Scotland’s devolved administration can take decisions independently of London on justice, but not foreign affairs.

The three major opposition parties in Holyrood—Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—are all strongly against Scottish independence and usually waste no time in bashing the SNP—particularly Labour, their fierce rivals for the centre-left vote.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Bill Aitken warned they would hear MacAskill’s explanation then “consider the position” on a no-confidence motion.

“There’s very real concern over what most people think is a crass decision handled very badly.

“The SNP government has demonstrated a degree of amateurishness which has caused us embarrassment.

“Scotland’s international reputation has taken a real hit in this respect.”

Britain has strongly denied suggestions that al-Megrahi’s release was linked to trade deals with Tripoli over Libya’s huge reserves of oil and gas.

Joe Lieberman, a senior US senator, urged an independent probe into MacAskill’s decision “to release a mass murderer”, expressing concern over the allegations.

“I don’t want to believe that they are true, but they are hanging so heavily in the air,” he told CNN television.

Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in the Westminster British Parliament, denied that the SNP had been involved in a deal to to return al-Megrahi to Libya.

“The idea that a Scottish Nationalist, a pro-independence administration in Edinburgh, is in cahoots with a UK Labour government at Westminster just beggars any credulity. It is not a credible conspiracy theory,” he told GMTV television.

“It was a very difficult decision to make and it was one based on semi-judicial reasons, not on politics, not on political expediency, but what is right in Scots law,” he added.

Meanwhile, The Times newspaper reported on Monday that al-Megrahi is planning to write a tell-all autobiography to “proclaim his innocence” about the attack.—AFP

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