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Anger over Scottish justice minister's Lockerbie inquiry snub

23rd July 2010

Kenny MacAskill, who released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, will not fly to US for Senate foreign relations committee

The Scottish justice minister has been accused of "running a mile" from a US inquiry into the release of the Libyan jailed for the Lockerbie bombing.

Labour and Tory leaders said Kenny MacAskill, of the Scottish National Party, had no justification for refusing a "perfectly legitimate" request to give evidence before a powerful US Senate committee on Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's release next week.

The Senate foreign relations committee is to hold hearings next Thursday into allegations, ignited by the Gulf oil spill controversy, that the British oil giant BP influenced a UK government prisoner transfer treaty with Libya to win lucrative contracts there.

The hearing has reignited the controversy over al-Megrahi's compassionate release from Greenock prison last August, partway through his life sentence for planting the bomb which killed 270 mainly American passengers and crew on a Pan Am flight to New York over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

Al-Megrahi, who still insists he is innocent, had been fighting an appeal against his conviction but dropped it two weeks before his release because he was terminally ill with inoperable prostate cancer and wanted to return home to die.

Richard Baker, Labour justice spokesman at the Scottish parliament, said: "There is a legitimacy for the US senators, they represent so many of the families who lost loved ones on that flight, I think it's a perfectly legitimate request."

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Baker added: "I think it speaks volumes about the lack of confidence [MacAskill] has now in his own decision that he is running a mile from any scrutiny of it."

It emerged yesterday MacAskill has been invited by the committee along with former UK justice secretary Jack Straw, the Scottish prisons' head of medical affairs, Dr Andrew Fraser, and Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive.

Reports that Tony Blair had been invited were denied by committee officials. Last night, a spokeswoman for senator Robert Menendez of New York, the committee member who sent the invitations, refused to confirm whether other ministers or senior figures in the affair had been invited.

Straw and Hayward are considering the invitation, but the Scottish government had refused the request on MacAskill's and Fraser's behalf.

A spokesman said there was "unequivocally" no connection between the compassionate release of al-Megrahi and BP's oil contracts – the issue central to the senate committee's hearing. The prisoner transfer route negotiated by UK ministers with Libya was rejected by MacAskill. Al-Megrahi was released solely using Scottish prison service procedures because he is terminally ill with prostate cancer.

MacAskill said today: "I am elected by the Scottish people, I am accountable to the Scottish parliament, I have appeared before a Scottish parliament committee and indeed before a Westminster committee. That is where I am required to be held to account and indeed I am happy to do so."

He insisted the release of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was "the right decision", made for "the right reasons".

Scottish officials fear privately that MacAskill could be used as a whipping boy by the Senate committee, but also argue there is no constitutional basis for a foreign legislature to cross-examine a British politician.

The al-Megrahi affair has been investigated by a Scottish parliament committee, which could not reach agreement on whether it was justified.

The Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, said last night this would increase suspicions about the affair. "A no-show would only fuel suspicion that they have something to hide," she said. "We need clarity, not confusion."

Baker said MacAskill's refusal to fly to Washington and meet US senators face-to-face contrasted starkly with his decision to meet al-Megrahi in person in Greenock prison last year.

Baker said: "He shouldn't just go to see the senators, we think he should take the opportunity to go to the families of the victims in the United States. He met after all personally with al-Megrahi in making the decision. He didn't meet with them, he just met a few of them by webcam.

"I think it's time for him to go to meet them personally and not only to explain his decision, but now offer an apology for making such a bad decision, which clearly was very wrong."


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