Lockerbie bomber freed on compassionate grounds

Lockerbie bomber freed on compassionate groundsControversy over Scottish Justice Secretary's decision to release convicted Lybian found guilty of killing 270 people.

Controversy over Scottish Justice Secretary's decision to release convicted Lybian found guilty of killing 270 people.

The Scottish Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, announced on 20 August 2009 the release of convicted bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi on "compassionate grounds."

Al-Megrahi, who was found to have a terminal prostate cancer, had his life sentence lifted and was allowed to return to his home country, Libya.

The Libyan had been found guilty of murdering 270 people by blowing up Pan-Am flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie in southern Scotland 13 years earlier, in what was Scotland's worst terrorist atrocity.

He was convicted of murder on 31 January 2001 at a trial held under Scottish law in the Netherlands and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Scottish Secretary for Justice lifts sentence on compassionate grounds

In the Scottish Legal System, the Justice Secretary has the power to release prisoners based on compassionate grounds.

Announcing his decision to the press, Mr MacAskill claimed that "Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."

"The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live. Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available."

"For these reasons and these reasons alone, it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die."

Al-Megrahi leaves Scotland maintaining his innocence

The only person convicted over the Lockerbie bombing, Al-Megrahi has always insisted he is innocent.

A second appeal to the verdict was under way until it was found he had terminal cancer, after which he was given the option of dropping the appeal and be freed on compassionate grounds.

In a statement released after leaving Greenock prison, Al-Megrahi claimed again his innocence:

"The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction. I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted."

Opinion polls show majority of Scots disagree with bomber's release

Opinion polls published in the Scottish media after Al-Megrahi's release showed the majority of the Scottish public did not approve the Justice Minister's decision to freed the convicted bomber, albeit the polls also found a substantial number of Scots agreeing with the release.

A poll published by the BBC showed a 60% of Scots opposing the release, while a different survey published by the Scottish Daily Mail found just a narrow 51% disagreeing with the decision.

However, a larger majority of the public, almost three quarters across all polls, believed the affair had damaged Scotland's international reputation.

Despite the public opposition to the release of the convicted bomber, polls also showed the Scots believed the Scottish Justice Secretary should not resign over the issue.

Scottish Parliament accuses Government of mishandling the affair

On 24 August 2009 the Scottish Parliament was recalled in a special sitting over the controversial Justice Secretary decision, which was strongly criticised by the opposition parties.

The Parliament voted by 73 to 50 with one abstention to criticise the Scottish Government over its handling of the Al-Megrahi release.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel Goldie, said "Tonight's vote is a clear message to Alex Salmond that the SNP Government's decision to release Mr Megrahi back to Libya is not in the Parliament's name, nor is it in Scotland's name."

The Liberal Democrats' leader, Tavish Scott, criticised the Justice Secretary for announcing the release of the bomber at a news conference instead of at the Parliament and told that "Scotland finds itself on the wrong side of change, with an international reputation failing, not growing."

Scottish Labour Party leader Iain Gray leader accused the SNP minority government of making "a wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences."

Mr Gray told "The Cabinet Secretary has mishandled this whole affair from start to finish."

British Government agreed with Al-Megrahi's release

The Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the British Labour Party, Gordon Brown, was also criticised for initially insisting that the British Government had played "no role" in the matter, as it later emerged that his Government supported and had even discussed the release with the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.

Documents disclosed by the Scottish Government included correspondence with the British Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, who wrote that keeping Al-Megrahi in a Scottish prison was not worth the risk of “damaging our wide-ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya.”

The documents released by the Scottish Government also revealed that British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell told the Libyan Government that the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not want Al-Megrahi to die in a Scottish prison.

Following the disclosure of the correspondence between the Scottish and the British governments on the issue, the British Government eventually admitted that Gordon Brown had discussed the release with Colonel Gaddafi during the G8 summit in Italy in July 2009.

Anger in the US by release of Al-Megrahi

News of the release of Al-Megrahi was received with shock by the US administration and relatives of the American victims.

US president, Barack Obama, said "We have been in contact with the Scottish Government, indicating that we objected to this and we thought it was a mistake."

US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told Al-Megrahi's release was "absolutely wrong."

FBI director, Robert Mueller, wrote a letter to the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, saying that his decision was "a mockery of justice" which "gives comfort to terrorists around the world."

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said that Scotland has a strong relationship with the US, despite not always agreeing on every issue.

Substantial number of Scots defend release of Al-Megrahi

Although opinion polls showed the majority of the Scottish public did not approve the Justice Minister's decision to freed the convicted bomber, a substantial number of Scots -between 30% to 40% depending on the poll- did support the release.

In Scotland, there has been much debate over the past years on whether Al-Megrahi was used as a scapegoat and his conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

Lockerbie priest Patrick Keegans commented on the issue saying that in his community "there is mixed reactions and mixed views. The majority of people are uncertain but a great number are of the same mind as myself. An innocent man has been convicted and they're happy to see him released."

The decision to free Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was favoured by the main Scottish newspapers, particularly Edinburgh's The Scotsman and Glasgow's The Herald.

Founder of Justice for Megrahi Campaign, Dr Jim Swire, who lost a daughter in the Lockerbie bombing, supported the release and told "I don't believe for a moment that this man was involved in the way that he was found to have been involved."

The release was also defended by some Opposition politicians such as Scottish Labour MP and former government minister, Malcolm Chisholm, who praised the Justice Secretary "for a courageous decision, which is entirely consistent with both the principles of Scots law and Christian morality."

Release on compassionate grounds closes legal chapter

As Al-Megrahi dropped his second appeal and accepted his release on compassionate grounds, one of the lengthiest chapters in Scottish legal history appears to have finally come to an end.

With the Scottish public opinion divided on whether Mr Al-Megrahi was rightfully convicted or was victim of a miscarriage of justice, many on both sides still feel that there are questions remaining to be answered over what really happened in December 1988.

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