US defied as Lockerbie bomber freed

By Alex Stevenson

The only man convicted of Britain’s worst ever terrorist attack has been freed by Scotland’s government.

In a news conference this lunchtime Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill confirmed his decision to free Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal prostate cancer and has an estimated three months to live.

Megrahi, 57, has been the centre of a storm of controversy in the last week as the Scottish government agonised over releasing him from his life sentence. He had begun a 27-year sentence in 2001.

Comment: MacAskill’s moment

While rejecting the Libyan government’s application for a prisoner transfer agreement, Mr MacAskill said his decision to allow his release – and return to his home country – reflected Scotland’s “humanity”.

“Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available,” he told journalists.

“Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

“For these reasons, and these reasons alone, it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 of the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

Megrahi took off from Glasgow airport to Libya in mid-afternoon. He was seen, a hunched figure wearing white walking unaided, as he boarded the aircraft.

Mr MacAskill acknowledged the pressure he had received from American politicians, including US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who had sought to dissuade him from his final choice.

He confirmed the London government had shown no interest in helping him make the decision.

It is a significant one beyond the freeing of a man convicted for bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21st 1988.

Anger at the 270 people killed in Britain’s worst ever terrorist attack has led senior American politicians to openly place pressure on Edinburgh to keep Megrahi behind bars until the end of his life.

Mr MacAskill’s decision to ignore their demands is being viewed, in terms of its international implications, as one of the biggest decisions made by the devolved administration.

He made clear he would be happy to participate in a further inquiry into his decision, if deemed appropriate.

Mr MacAskill said he was aware that many would disagree with his decision. He revealed he had been forced to rule out allowing Megrahi to live in Scotland because his security could not be guaranteed. As a result Megrahi is being allowed to return to Libya.

The justice minister made plain the scars of the Lockerbie bombing would never heal, however.

“Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands,” he added.

“The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal, some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.”

The British government has refused to indicate its position on the issue. But Conservative leader David Cameron spoke out against the “very bad decision”, condemning Megrahi’s release as “the product of some very nonsensical thinking”.

And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott accused Mr MacAskill of having “dithered” over the choice before reaching a “disappointing verdict”.

“Liberal Democrats believe that major decisions like this must be transparent. Kenny MacAskill should come before parliament as soon as possible and explain this verdict.”