I Stand by My Decision. I'll Live with the Consequences; MINISTER DEFIANT AS MSPS SAVAGE HIM OVER BOMBER

Article excerpt

Byline: Dave King

KENNY MacASKILL was wrong three times over when he freed the Lockerbie bomber, Labour leader Iain Gray told MSPs yesterday.

The embattled justice secretary stoodby his decision to releasethe worst mass murderer in Scotland's history.

But angry opposition leaders told him he had bungled by sending Abdelbaset al-Megrahi back to Libya - and dragged the name of Scotland through the mud.

Onslaught

Gray led the onslaught at a special Holyrood debate, insisting that MacAskill had made "the wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences" .

The Labour leader told MSPs, who were recalled from their holidays to discuss the scandal: "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 Mr MacAskill now regrets about his decision and the way it was reached?"

But defiant MacAskill said: "This was my decision and my decision alone. I stand by it and I will live with the consequences."

The justice secretary returned to the sermon-like tone he took when he announced that he was freeing the terminally ill bomber.

And as he justified his decision, he virtually repeated his remarks from last week, word for word.

Again, MacAskill admitted that Megrahi had received the kind of compassion he never showed to his 270 victims. But he added: "In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.

"Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people - no matter the atrocity perpetrated."

Gray agreed that compassion was an important part of Scottish justice.

But he added: "That compassion is at every point tempered by justice and by the rights of victims and wider society."

And he said the silent majority of Scots had been "angered" by the decision to send cancer-stricken Megrahi home.

Megrahi arrived in Tripoli to a hero's welcome, with a mob of government supporters waving Scottish flags and Colonel Gaddafi's son waiting to hug him.

And Gray asked MacAskill: "Does he understand how ashamed we were to see our flag flying to welcome a convicted bomber home?" MacAskill accused Libya of breaking a promise to keep Megrahi's release low-key and added: "It is a matter of great regret that he was received in such an inappropriate manner. It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie."

Pressure

But on the actual decision to release the killer, the minister did not budge an inch.

MacAskill said repeatedly that he followed "due process".

He said he spoke to relatives of US Lockerbie victims - the group who have criticised his decision most strongly - by video link before making up his mind.

MacAskill dismissed claims that he was influenced by the prospect of lucrative future oil deals with Libya and insisted that his decision "was not based on political, economic or diplomatic considerations".

And he denied claims that he put pressure on Megrahi to drop his appeal against conviction - a case which many believe would have proved embarrassing to the authorities - in return for his release.

MacAskill said Megrahi's decision to end the appeal was "a matter for him".

Gray condemned MacAskill for visiting Megrahi in person at Greenock jail before deciding to let him go.

But MacAskill said the bomber had been entitled to "make representations" to him and had chosen to do so in person.

He added:"It would have been outwith the tenets of natural justice to refuse this request.

"I was duty-bound to meet him." Gray later accused MacAskill of misleading parliament over the issue. He insisted the minister had only been required to allow Megrahi to make representations in writing. …