SNP loses Lockerbie vote

By Ian Dunt

The SNP government in Holyrood has lost a vote over the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

The government lost by 73 votes to 50.

The decision distances the parliament from the decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber, but the opposition parties are unlikely to push their advantage further by calling for a vote of no confidence in Kenny MacAskill, Scottish justice secretary.

The SNP could easily react to such a move by triggering a slew of ministerial resignations and treating the vote as a statement of no confidence in the government. An election would then become mandatory, with opposition parties likely to end up in a worse position than they started.

A day of debate has also revealed a split between Labour’s Scotland leader, Iain Gray, who disagrees with the release, and Gordon Brown who made clear he supported it.

The debate earlier in the day saw several MSPs question the quality of the medical evidence which led Mr MacAskill to release Megrahi. The government suggested publishing the evidence would breach patient confidentiality.

Earlier today, Gordon Brown intervened in the controversy surrounding the release of Megrahi.

The prime minister assured his audience that there had been no cover up in negotiations between the UK and Libya.

“There was no conspiracy, no cover up, no double dealing and no private assurances,” he said at a talk for a youth jobs summit in Birmingham.

“We were absolutely clear throughout this was a decision for the Scottish government.”

Mr Brown insisted today that when he met the Libyan leader he gave him no “assurances”.

At one point, Mr Brown – who has faced widespread criticism for his silence on the issue – appeared to suggest his lack of opinion was an attempt to alleviate the suffering of those who lost family members and friends in the atrocity.

“After the despicable scenes at Tripoli airport, was I right to use my energies to minimise the suffering of Lockerbie relatives?” he asked.

“Yes and as we saw yesterday he [Megrahi] did not appear at these events [to celebrate Colonel Gaddafi’s anniversary in power].”

The intervention follows comments from foreign secretary David Miliband confirming he told Libyan authorities he did not wish to see Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi die in prison.

Yesterday’s release of documents, which largely corroborated the government’s account, featured minutes in which Libyan Europe minister Abdulati Alobidi told Scottish officials that Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell had said Mr Brown and Mr Miliband did not wish Megrahi to die in prison.

“We did not want him to die in prison. No, we weren’t seeking his death in prison. We have been absolutely clear,” Mr Miliband told the Today programme.

“[Rammell] was asked by the Libyans whether or not we wanted Megrahi to die in jail.

“He said we weren’t actively seeking his death in jail, and he explained very clearly that under our constitution this was a matter of Scottish law, and a matter for the Scottish government.”
The foreign secretary insisted there had been no “double dealing”, however.

The majority of the correspondence released yesterday related to a prisoner transfer agreement.

The Scottish executive released Megrahi on entirely different grounds, possibly to avoid the ire of the US. The Americans were promised when Robin Cook was foreign secretary that Megrahi would serve his term in Scotland.

The documents nevertheless confirm that Westminster regularly told the Scottish government that it was its decision whether or not to release Megrahi.

The comments from Mr Rammell are being used to turn the heat back on Westminster, however.

Asked by the BBC if he was aware of the prime minister’s wishes, Mr Rammell said: “No, I’ve not discussed this with the prime minister either before the event or after.

“I was responding to a specific concern that the Libyans put to me that they didn’t wish Al Megrahi to die in prison.

“In response to that in a conversation with my counterpart, I made clear that we were not actively seeking his death in prison but we emphatically, and this is what I said to him at the time, we emphatically would not intervene and it was a matter for Scottish ministers.”

But the SNP said his comments meant Westminster had a case to answer.

The party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said: “These papers show the wisdom of Kenny MacAskill’s decision to reject the tainted PTA [prisoner transfer agreement] process, and grant compassionate release on the basis of the unanimous advice and evidence.

“And they leave many unanswered questions for the UK government.”

The Liberal Democrats were outraged by Mr Brown’s continued silence on the issue.

“The foreign secretary has now admitted that the British government made its position on Megrahi’s release clear to the Libyans,” said the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Edward Davies.

“It is now clear that Gordon Brown felt able to share his feelings with a power-crazed dictator but not with the British people. When the issue at stake is one of the biggest foreign policy storms to hit the UK in recent times, this is entirely unacceptable.”

Tory leader David Cameron is calling for an inquiry into the affair.