Kenny MacAskill explains decision not to attend Senate's Lockerbie hearing

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THE Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill today defended his decision not to attend the US Senate's hearing on the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

Mr MacAskill (pictured) was invited to appear before the Senate hearing, along with former UK justice secretary Jack Straw and BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

Members of the US Senate foreign relations committee want to investigate the suspicions of some that oil giant BP may have had a hand in the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last August.

But this morning, Mr MacAskill insisted that the Scottish Government was "neither party nor privy" to any discussions that may have taken place with BP.

He denied claims that he was "running scared" from an inquiry, and said the Scottish Government was co-operating fully with the US "as best we can".

Mr MacAskill said: "The US Senate's invitation is primarily predicated on an investigation into what may or may not have happened with regard to a BP oil deal.

"The Scottish Government was neither party nor privy to what was going on there, so we've made it quite clear that we have no information that we can provide regarding that.

"If there is any information on points, we are happy to clarify matters but we really can't be of any assistance on that."

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He said it was "proper form" for him to give evidence to Holyrood and to Westminster – but not to the US Senate.

He said: "I'm the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. I am accountable to the Scottish Parliament and I'm elected by the Scottish people. That's why when I was asked to appear before a Scottish Parliamentary committee on Al-Megrahi, I did so, and that's proper form.

"With regards to the United States Senate, that is regarding BP, and I can't assist in that.

"If they do have points of clarification, we will be more than happy to provide that, but as I say, we were neither party not privy to it and we have no knowledge of what did or did not happen.

"I'm not running scared from anything. What we are doing is co-operating fully with the United States Senate as best we can."

Mr MacAskill continued: "We have made it quite clear that the letter from the First Minister clarifying our position will be read into the records so it will be there for the Senate, but we don't know anything about a BP deal. We were not party to any of those discussions, so there's nothing I can usefully add."

Earlier today Labour's Holyrood justice spokesman Richard Baker urged Mr MacAskill to appear before the Senate committee when it meets on Thursday.

Mr Baker told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland: "It speaks volumes about the lack of confidence he has now in his own decision that he is running a mile from any scrutiny of it."

Mr Baker argued it was "perfectly legitimate" for American politicians to ask Mr MacAskill to come to Washington and answer questions, saying the senators "represent so many of the families who lost loved ones" in the atrocity.

The Labour MSP said: "The US senators want to know why Megrahi was released. Only one person can tell them that – that's Kenny MacAskill."

He also called on Mr MacAskill to meet American families who lost loved ones when Pan Am flight 103 was brought down over Lockerbie.

Mr Baker said: "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."

But Mr MacAskill said this morning: "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."

Cancer-stricken Megrahi was released from Greenock jail on August 20 last year.

He had been given three months to live, but is still alive and living with his family in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

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

He said: "I stand by the decision I made. It wasn't a decision that I chose to make, it was a decision that I had to make.

"I was the Cabinet Secretary for Justice when that decision had to be made. It would have been a dereliction of all my duties not to have made a decision and I believe I made the right decision for the right reasons."

The controversy over the Libyan's release flared up again during Prime Minister David Cameron's first visit to Washington this week.

Announcing plans for the meeting last week, committee chairman Senator John Kerry said it needed to establish what led to the "mistaken" release of the only person convicted of the 1988 atrocity in which 270 people, including 189 US citizens, died.

The Scottish Government announced last night it had formally declined the request for Mr MacAskill to appear and also a request that Scottish Prison Service health boss Dr Andrew Fraser attend.

Mr Straw said he had yet to receive formal notification of the request to attend the hearing but had "no objection in principle" to explaining to US senators the background to the prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya negotiated by Tony Blair in 2007.

A BP spokesman confirmed Mr Hayward had been asked to attend and was considering the invitation.