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August 25, 2009

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Scottish lawmakers raise tough questions over bomber's release

SCOTTISH legislators gathered yesterday for an emergency meeting on the government's decision to release the Lockerbie bomber as critics claimed the act could severely damage relations with the United States.

The government of First Minister Alex Salmond has faced unrelenting criticism from both the US government and the families of American bombing victims for freeing Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.

The Libyan - the only man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 airline bombing - was released last week on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill with prostate cancer. He has returned to his native Libya.

In a strongly worded letter to the Scottish government, FBI director Robert Mueller said al-Megrahi's release gave comfort to terrorists, while Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said releasing the bomber was "obviously a political decision."

Lawmakers want to question Salmond's minority government about the decision, with some calling for Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to resign. MacAskill has said the decision was his alone, followed all the correct procedures under Scottish law and was not influenced by political considerations.

Some lawmakers want to distance themselves from the decision by Scotland's nationalist administration, which advocates full independence from Britain.

"Today is about showing the world that Kenny MacAskill did not speak for Scotland in making this decision," said Richard Baker, the Labour Party's Scottish justice spokesman.

But former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish slammed Mueller's criticism as "wholly wrong" and said the FBI chief should keep his thoughts to himself. Salmond said it was wrong to assume that all those affected by the bombing were opposed to al-Megrahi's release.

"I understand the huge and strongly held views of the American families, but that's not all the families who were affected by Lockerbie," Salmond told the BBC. "A number of the families, particularly in the UK, take a different view and think that we made the right decision."

Scottish officials also have stressed the differences between British and American judicial systems. Compassionate release is a regular feature of the Scottish system when a prisoner is near death.

But some critics have accused the authorities of approving the release to boost business ties between Britain and Libya. Such suspicions were heightened after Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi thanked Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth II for "encouraging" the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi.


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