Leader: MacAskill has a duty

LOCKERBIE will always remain a name resonant of tragedy and controversy.

The atrocity committed against Pan Am flight 103 represented a landmark in terrorism. It is worth remembering that of the 270 innocents murdered at Lockerbie, 189 were Americans. The United States was the primary target and victim, so it is absurd to suggest America has no locus in the current debate over the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. That is the first of many reasons why this newspaper disagrees with the refusal of Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to attend Thursday's US Senate hearing.

It is important not to allow resentment over Britain's perceived subordination to the United States in contexts such as the Iraq war to obscure America's legitimate interest in this case. Of course the senators so vociferously pressing for explanations are grandstanding for the benefit of a domestic audience: they are politicians. But the pain of American victims' families and the bafflement of the US public at the release of a man convicted of 270 murders are genuine and deserve to be addressed openly, honestly and thoroughly, otherwise Scotland's international reputation will be further damaged. Kenny MacAskill remains adamant that he made the correct decision. Very well: if he has a good case, let him spell it out in Washington on prime-time television, rather than leave it to be distorted by the rumour mill and conspiracy theorists.

The first anniversary of Megrahi's release was always going to be a time for a reappraisal of all aspects of Megrahi's release. From the Scottish perspective, there is an elephant in the room: the scepticism in many quarters regarding Megrahi's guilt. In this context it is especially regrettable that Megrahi's impending appeal was withdrawn, since further legal proceedings would have cast additional light on the case. Here the justice secretary is open to serious scrutiny. In his statement to parliament on Megrahi's release, MacAskill said "it appeared to me that the American families and government either had an expectation, or were led to believe, that there would be no prison transfer and the sentence would be served in Scotland". That underlined his hostility to the concept of prisoner transfer. But minutes of his unprecedented meeting with Megrahi in Greenock Prison on 5 August, 2009 record: "Mr MacAskill stated that it was necessary to highlight that when he makes his decision on prisoner transfer, he can only grant a transfer if there are no court proceedings on going." An unsympathetic critic might claim this looks as if the justice secretary is pressing for the abandonment of Megrahi's appeal - despite the fact it was only necessary to satisfy the conditions for prisoner transfer, which he had privately rejected. It was irrelevant to the issue of compassionate release, the route he was minded to take.

Kenny MacAskill has tried to confuse the issue by using BP as a red herring. It is generally accepted BP did not lobby the Scottish Government. By repeatedly repudiating a charge that few people are levelling, MacAskill is attempting to deflect attention from the issues he should be clarifying: the precise nature of the medical opinion used to justify Megrahi's release; the Scottish Government's manoeuvrings on an appeal; and the true motives behind the final decision. To resolve such controversies, the justice minister should fly to Washington this week. The same applies to Tony Blair and Jack Straw.

The decision to release Megrahi was taken by one man: Kenny MacAskill. It is his responsibility, therefore, to do his utmost to protect Scotland's reputation by giving comprehensive testimony to the US Senate inquiry, instead of behaving as if he had something to hide and so fuelling continued allegations against Scotland.

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