LONDON, (AFP) – Scottish ministers Wednesday defended their decision to free the Lockerbie bomber after renewed US anger over the release threatened to spoil David Cameron’s first visit to the White House.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said he did not regret freeing Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last August.
And Salmon denied claims from US lawmakers that the release formed part of an oil deal between BP and resource-rich Libya.
“If you take a decision in good faith, you don’t regret it,” Salmond, the leader of Scotland’s devolved government, told BBC radio.
He added: “As far as the Scottish government is concerned we had no contact with BP, either written or verbal, as far as the process of compassionate release was concerned.”
The decision to free prostate cancer sufferer Megrahi, the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, caused outrage in the United States, where most of the 270 victims were from.
Many of the bereaved families condemned the move, FBI chief Robert Mueller said it gave “comfort to terrorists around the world”, and an online campaign was launched for a boycott of Scottish goods.
The anger has now been renewed by claims by US senators that BP — already under fire over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — lobbied for Megrahi’s release to safeguard a 2007 oil exploration deal with Libya worth 900 million dollars.
The row threatened to overshadow Cameron’s first official visit to the White House Tuesday, but during talks with US President Barack Obama the two leaders sought to play down any differences.
Both men condemned Megrahi’s release, although Cameron refused calls from four US senators to launch a full-blown inquiry in Britain, saying: “I don’t need an inquiry to tell me it was a bad decision. It was a bad decision.”
Cameron also sought to distance BP from the release, adding: “I haven’t seen anything to suggest that the Scottish government were in any way swayed by BP.”
Speaking Wednesday, Salmond pointed out that concerns about BP’s involvement concerned a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) signed by the British government with Libya in 2007 at the same time as BP agreed a massive oil deal there.
He said Scotland had opposed the PTA because it sparked suspicions of “deals in the desert”, and it had subsequently rejected a request by Libya to release Megrahi under this agreement.
In the end, Megrahi was granted compassionate release because he had been diagnosed in 2008 with cancer, and was judged by several doctors last year to have only months to live.
He is still alive, but Salmond said Tuesday it was “entirely possible that somebody’s life expectancy in a prison in Greenock (Scotland) is somewhat shorter than the life expectancy on a progressive drug therapy in Tripoli.”
Some 23 prisoners have been freed on compassionate release in the last 10 years, and Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, who took the decision to send Megrahi home, said this was a key part of Scotland’s approach to justice.
“We believe that justice has to be served but mercy must be capable of being shown,” he told the BBC on Wednesday.
Under its devolved system of government, Scotland has control over its own justice matters. As a result, the then prime minister Gordon Brown’s government refused to get involved in Megrahi’s release.
And while Cameron, who came to power in May, denounced the release, he also said Scotland had acted properly.
Although he rejected calls for an inquiry, he did order a review of the paperwork surrounding the case to see if more needed to be published.
However, this review does not include documents from the Scottish government, which said it had already published everything regarding Megrahi’s release that it had permission to make public.