Alex Salmond paves the way for Megrahi release

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ALEX Salmond has given the strongest indication yet that the Lockerbie bomber is to be released from prison, by insisting the decision would not be swayed by a show of strength from the United States.

Speaking after the receipt of a letter from several high-profile US senators, including Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, the First Minister said: "There will be no consideration of international power politics or anything else. It will be taken on the evidence in the interest of justice."

In the letter, received on the day Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi formally dropped his appeal, the senators urged justice secretary Kenny MacAskill not to allow the bomber to return to Libya. It followed similar moves from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former presidential candidate John McCain. Last night in Washington, Mrs Clinton issued a strongly-worded plea to keep al-Megrahi in prison. "I just think it is absolutely wrong to release someone who has been imprisoned based on the evidence about his involvement in such a horrendous crime," she said. "We are still encouraging the Scottish authorities not to do so and we hope that they will not."

Unlike many British families, most US relatives of the victims of the outrage are convinced of Megrahi's guilt.

And US politicians have made it clear they do not want the only man convicted of the atrocity that claimed 270 lives to be sent home to a probable hero's welcome.

The seven senators – the others were Patrick Leahy, Frank Lautenberg, Charles Schumer, Robert Mendez and Kristen Gillibrand – reminded Mr MacAskill of the international agreement over the "heinous" crime, which meant Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scotland.

They added: "We know that the Scottish Government shares our commitment – and the world's – to support justice and oppose acts of terrorism. That is why we urge you that Megrahi serves the remainder of his sentence in prison in Scotland."

It was the latest indication that the events surrounding the possible release of Megrahi may seriously damage Scottish-US relations, undoing efforts by the SNP to foster closer transatlantic relations.

But despite the unprecedented international pressure, Mr Salmond was adamant that Mr MacAskill, who has to make the decision, would look at the applications to send Megrahi home on their merits and not be bullied one way or the other.

Megrahi could be returned to Libya on compassionate grounds or under a prisoner transfer agreement.

Mr Salmond insisted no decision had been made and issued a strong vote of confidence in the justice secretary, who has been under fire over the past week for his handling of the issue, following leaks suggesting Megrahi is to be released.

Mr Salmond said: "I can also say that a final decision has not been taken by the justice secretary – he only received his final advice at the weekend. I'm absolutely confident if there is one person in Scotland I would absolutely trust to make the right decision for the right reasons, it's Kenny MacAskill."

He also tried to quash suggestions that the dropping of Megrahi's appeal had anything to do with a meeting between the convicted bomber and Mr MacAskill.

"What I can say is, the Scottish Government had no interest whatsoever in Mr Megrahi dropping his appeal," he said.

The First Minister's intervention has been widely perceived as an effort to regain some control over an issue on which his administration has been accused of losing its grip.

Earlier in the day, Mr Salmond and the rest of the Scottish Cabinet had received a briefing from Mr MacAskill at their meeting in Aberdeen.

Afterwards, aides insisted no opinions had been exchanged and that the justice secretary had simply "briefly" reported on the procedure.

With Megrahi formally dropping his appeal yesterday, it has been widely reported that a decision on his freedom – either compassionate release because of ill-health or the controversial prisoner transfer agreement negotiated by Tony Blair and Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi – will be announced tomorrow.

The Scottish Government will only officially state that a decision will be taken by the end of the month before parliament returns from the summer recess.

However, many observers believe the decision has already been made to send Megrahi back on compassionate grounds, especially after reports that he has been sending his private possessions home.

At present, Megrahi cannot return via the prisoner transfer agreement as the Crown has not dropped its appeal against the length of his minimum 27-year sentence. That agreement can only come into effect when all legal proceedings are closed.

Yesterday, the Crown made it clear it had not decided whether to drop its appeal and that ministers would play no part in that decision. However, Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini is believed to have met Mr MacAskill on Monday in the Scottish Parliament.

The issue has begun to raise serious concerns within the UK government, which negotiated the transfer agreement, over the ability of the Scottish Government to make a big decision properly.

Labour's Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy waded into the controversy when he launched a stinging rebuke against the Scottish Government over its handling of the Lockerbie affair.

He described Mr MacAskill's handling of the matter as "a bit embarrassing", and demanded that a decision be made "one way or another".

The intervention by Mr Murphy, on a visit to a West Lothian factory, helped to further politicise the controversy, on the very day Megrahi dropped his second legal appeal and the US senators added their voices for him to die in a Scottish jail.

However, the Scottish Secretary reiterated: "The fate of Megrahi is 100 per cent the Scottish Government's responsibility."

Bill Aitken, the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman, also condemned the way the affair had been handled.

He accused Mr Salmond of doing "a disservice to the Scottish legal system and to the families and friends of the Lockerbie victims". He went on: "Mr. Salmond's government has been found wanting on the international stage."

He also called for a quick decision on Megrahi's fate.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott noted that "the eyes of the world are watching Scotland right now".

He added: "The Scottish Government needs to put an end to this by telling us when they will announce the verdict."

Rankin hits out at prison visit

BESTSELLING novelist Ian Rankin yesterday criticised justice secretary Kenny MacAskill's handling of the decision over the future of the Lockerbie bomber, arguing he should never have been seen on TV visiting him in prison.

"As soon as you do that, that makes it personal," he told a packed audience at a reading of his new novel The Complaints at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. "It should have been handled far more diplomatically behind closed doors. As it is, he's been seen to vacillate."

MacAskill's dilemma – the three possible decisions

THERE are three possible decisions that could be made by justice secretary Kenny MacAskill over what happens to the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.

1 Megrahi is sent home on compassionate grounds

The reason for this decision would be that Megrahi's terminal prostate cancer gives him just three months to live.

To make this decision, Mr MacAskill will come under pressure to publish the medical evidence.

2 Megrahi is sent home to serve the rest of his sentence in a Libyan jail

This would be done through the prisoner-transfer agreement negotiated by former prime minister Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi. Mr MacAskill can only adjudicate on this theoretically, because it cannot be applied while there are active proceedings, and the Crown has not dropped its case to extend Megrahi's sentence.

3 Megrahi stays in jail

This means he will probably die incarcerated in Scotland. This will at least meet the terms of the international agreement that Megrahi serves his sentence here after being tried under Scottish law.