Embattled Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill, facing a storm of international condemnation for ordering the "compassionate release" of the man convicted of murdering 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie 20 years ago, defended his action before an emergency session of the Scottish parliament on Monday.
He dismissed media suggestions that he had released Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in response to pressure from London, which has sought closer ties and more oil and gas business with Tripoli in recent years, or that the action was a Scottish nationalist tweaking of London's nose. Mr. MacAskill said his decision "was based on the law of Scotland, and the values I believe we seek to uphold. It was not based on political, diplomatic, or economic considerations."
Meanwhile Frank Duggan, a Washington-based lawyer who acts as a spokesman for the American victims' families (most of the murdered were US citizens, many of them Syracuse University students returning home from a school trip) says Scotland has yet to release full medical reports that verify that Megrahi was medically diagnosed as having only three months to live. Under Scottish law, prisoners are eligible for release on compassionate grounds if medical authorities determine that they likely have only three months to live.
"I was led to believe that Scotland had given information to our government that convinced them that he had 3 months to live,'' says Mr. Duggan. "It turns out that didn’t happen. The State Department doesn't have the records and the White House doesn't have them."
The one medical report that Scotland has produced, in which the names of the physicians are redacted, says that Megrahi was indeed gravely ill, but "whether or not prognosis is more or less than 3 months, no specialist 'would be willing to say.' "
Report worried over Megrahi's psychological state
In a section giving reasons for a recommendation of early release, the report's authors write:
He has, since first consulting, reported a feeling of isolation – cultural, religious, social, and language. He has a strong sense of family duty. The diagnosis of a terminal condition had heightened his sense of isolation and undoubtedly has substantial psychological impact. [Megrahi] himself has a strong belief of the physical state impacting on the psychological and vice versa. He simply wishes to return home to be with his family, including his elderly mother. In addition to considering the requirements of the patient, we had also discussed consideration of the family. His return to Libya would, we feel, not only benefit the patient, but would also be advantageous for the family. [Megrahi] has several children of varying age. If he was returned home, his family could became more involved in his healthcare needs. We would anticipate this would benefit them, not only in the short-term, but also when considering any potential longer-term psychological impact.
Mr. Duggan calls the report's concern for Megrahi's "mental condition and how he misses his family... really galling. He's in jail for mass-murder. He's not supposed to wake up every day full of joy."
Duggan says that Megrahi was "hardly being detained in a dungeon," pointing out the prison was kitted out with cable television at Libyan expense, that Megrahi had access to a kitchen, and that his family had been allowed to live in Scotland so they could visit the prison, though they eventually elected to go home.
Outrage at hero's welcome
Duggan says the victims families were "outraged" by the footage of Megrahi's jubilant return home, with cheering crowds waving Scottish and Libyan flags as he stepped off the plane in Tripoli to be embraced by Saif al-Islam, one of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's sons (video of his hero's welcome can be seen here).
Megrahi's "conviction and imprisonment was a very small measure of justice and they’re now taking that one guy and letting him go," says Duggan. He says not only victims' families but the community of prosecutors and investigators who worked to convict Megrahi in the US, Scotland, and elsewhere "are hurt and angry and disgusted."
"I was on the presidential commission that was appointed by [President George H. W. Bush] to investigate the bombing and was the liason for the families," says Duggan. "Like a lot of people that get involved in this, I didn't want to let it go until there was closure. Now, there will never be any closure."
MacAskill trusted Libyan assurances
MacAskill, a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP) headed by First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, protested at the Scottish parliament today that he had received – and trusted – Libyan assurances that Megrahi, who served just 8 years of a life sentence, would not be celebrated on his return home.
"It is a matter of great regret that [Megrahi] was received in such an inappropriate manner,'' MacAskill said. "It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie. Assurances had been given by the Libyan Government that any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion."
But he still took withering criticism, with Iain Gray, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, saying: "The Cabinet secretary has mishandled this whole affair from start to finish. Between the scenes of triumph in Tripoli and the pain and anger at home and abroad, is there nothing [MacAskill] now regrets about his decision and the way it was reached?" Duggan said it was clear the celebrations had been planned well in advance.
Mueller's scathing letter
In an open letter US FBI director Robert Mueller lashed out at MacAskill over the weekend, a highly unusual move for a senior US law enforcement official perhaps explained by the fact that as an assistant attorney general Mueller had helped bring Megrahi to justice.
I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of ''compassion'.' Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man's exercise of ''compassion'.' Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible... Your action makes a mockery of the emotions, passions and pathos of all those affected by the Lockerbie tragedy.
Ulterior motives for the release?
Some families of Lockerbie victims in Scotland believe Megrahi was an innocent man, and there has been press speculation that releasing him on "compassionate" grounds was an acknowledgment of errors at trial. But MacAskill insisted on Monday that the judgment was correct, praising the investigation. "I pay tribute to our Judges who presided and acted justly," he said.
Many in the UK and elsewhere believe that the release will pave the way for more British oil and gas investment in Libya, notwithstanding the fact that the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London has no direct leverage over the Scottish judicial process. Mr. Islam, Qaddafi's son, said that discussions over releasing Megrahi were "always on the table" in talks on improved ties initiated by former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007.
And some are speculating that Scotland's nationalist government, which has promised a referendum on independence from the UK, could run into trouble because of the decision. The Herald newspaper of Scotland reports that MacAskill's party could be headed for trouble.
"We will call for a vote so that the voice of the Scottish Parliament, not just the Scottish Government, is heard by those across the globe who are listening to events unfold," said Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat leader. "The SNP's credibility at home and abroad is in tatters. Scotland's must not be allowed to follow with it."
Duggan says he accepts that Megrahi is not well, though he has doubts about the prognosis Scotland has provided.
"If Megrahi is still dancing around in 5 months or so, MacAskill is going to have to resign," he says.