Scottish lawmakers vote against Lockerbie decision

The governing Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) had asked Parliament to endorse the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Megrahi as "consistent with the principles of Scottish justice," but the lawmakers rejected the bid Tuesday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond (l.) and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill listen during a debate about the recent release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, at the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh Wednesday.
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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his bitter opponents in Scotland's nationalist-led autonomous government were today both struggling to contain the continuing damage to their political fortunes a full two weeks after the release of the Libyan agent convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

North of the border, the minority administration of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost a vote of confidence in the Edinburgh Parliament on the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.

The government had asked Parliament to endorse the decision to release Mr. Megrahi as "consistent with the principles of Scottish justice," but lawmakers rejected the bid.

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Although the symbolic vote was not an attempt to topple the Scottish government, the decision may further damage the pro-independence party's standing in the eyes of many Scots.

SNP defends 'brave decision'

The SNP leader and Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, came out swinging at the start of the debate on today's vote, describing Megrahi's release as "a difficult, challenging, and brave decision."

"Opinion is divided, but I am proud and happy to have the support within Scotland of the Church of Scotland and Archbishop Mario Conti of the Catholic Church," said Mr. Salmond. "And I am even prouder to have the support of Nelson Mandela, which indicates the respect for a Scottish judicial decision across this planet."

Opposition bemoans 'damaged' reputation

His predecessor, the Labour Party's Jack McConnell, begged to differ. He said there had been assurances that Megrahi would serve out his life sentence behind bars in Scotland.

"This agreement, this solemn undertaking, this reassurance for the families of the dead has been disregarded by the justice secretary and others, and our words will never mean as much again," he added. "We Scots have been trusted the world over, our justice system has been admired for centuries, but in one announcement, this reputation has been damaged, tarnished for years to come."

Could Lockerbie decision hurt the SNP?

Despite losing today's vote by 73 votes to 50, which is not a full no-confidence motion, the SNP has appeared at ease with the result.

Perhaps much more worrying for the party, which will tomorrow announce a bill for a full referendum on outright Scottish independence, is the reaction of voters to the Megrahi release.

A survey of more than 1,000 Scots last week by the polling firm ICM showed a clear majority disagreed with the decision, with 60 percent opposed and just 32 percent in favor.

A separate poll earlier in the week by YouGov also suggested that the Megrahi decision may have impacted the SNP's standing, with support for independence at a low of 28 percent.

Brown defends Scotland's decision

Hours earlier, Mr. Brown said that he "respected" the decision of Scotland's justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, and denied that the worst mass murderer in British history had been allowed to return to Libya as part of efforts by Britain to secure oil and gas rights in Libya.

"On our part there was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to influence Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Gaddafi," he said during a speech in Birmingham which was originally scheduled to be about jobs.

But Brown's former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, broke ranks to criticize the decision, telling the BBC: "It does not feel right to me that someone who has been convicted for an extremely serious offence be able to return, in a way in which his victims were not able to, back to Libya."

"Of course we have to be compassionate with people who are in prison and coming to the end of their, lives but I am not sure I would have made the same decision," said Ms. Smith.

Brown's rejection of a conspiracy behind Megrahi's release came after the release by the Scottish nationalists of documents showing that the British government had told Tripoli that Brown did not want to see the bomber die in prison.

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Has this hurt the 'special relationship' between the US and Britain?

Check out our blog on how British Foreign Minister David Miliband's confirmation that the British government did not want Megrahi to die in prison rankles across the Atlantic.

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