Lockerbie: Salmond 'proud' of support for Megrahi release
THE First Minister said today that he was "proud" of the voices raised in support of the decision to free the Lockerbie bomber.
Alex Salmond told the Scottish Parliament that Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill had taken "a difficult, challenging and brave decision" on Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi in line with due process.
Closing a half-day debate in which opposition parties criticised Mr MacAskill's decision and the way it had been reached, Mr Salmond said parties should allow a free vote in Holyrood later today.
"Opinion is divided – but I am proud and happy to have the support within Scotland of the Church of Scotland and Archbishop Mario Conti of the Catholic Church," Mr Salmond said.
"And I am even prouder to have the support of Nelson Mandela, which indicates the respect for a Scottish judicial decision across this planet."
Mr Salmond also told MSPs that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had respected the decision.
"The Prime Minister has spoken now on the issue and has said, and I quote, 'I respect the right of Scottish ministers to make the decision, and the decision'.
"That's a direct quote from the Prime Minister – and I hope that now we will start to see respect across the chamber."
Mr Salmond's comments came at the end of a debate which began with him calling Labour's stance on the release of Megrahi "totally and absolutely ridiculous".
The jibe came after Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared to confirm that the UK Government told Libya that it did not wish to see Megrahi die in jail.
The three-hour debate began with Mr MacAskill defending his decision to turn down Megrahi's attempt to be transferred to Libya as a prisoner, while granting his application to be given compassionate early release.
Labour, Tories and the Liberal Democrats attacked the decision and the way it was handled, and the minority SNP administration looks set to be defeated in a vote which invites MSPs to endorse MacAskill's decision on the issue later today.
But the critical opposition amendments fall well short of a no-confidence motion, and the Scottish Government appeared relaxed at the prospect of defeat.
It had argued for other parties to allow a free vote on the issue, saying that Labour is in the "ridiculous and hypocritical" position of opposing the stance of the Labour Government in Westminster while many prominent Lib Dems opposed their party's stance.
Much of the opposition attack focused on Mr MacAskill's decision to meet Megrahi in Greenock prison on August 6, on the extent of the medical advice on the condition of the terminally-ill Megrahi, and on whether alternatives to send him home to Libya had been properly considered.
Labour leader Iain Gray said new "flaws" in the decision-making process had emerged daily.
Mr Gray, who opposed the decision to release Megrahi, said: "I made my judgment on the decision and the process, and I stand by it.
"I said the visit to Greenock was unnecessary and I believe I was right.
"I said compassion for Megrahi had to be balanced against the length of the sentence remaining and I believe I was right.
"I said compassion had to be balanced against the enormity of the crime and the guidance says I was right."
Tory leader Annabel Goldie said: "Emergence of the evidence that Gordon Brown was telling the Libyans that he did not want Mr Megrahi to die in jail is damaging for the Prime Minister."
And she accused both Mr Brown and Mr Salmond of "nudge-and-wink diplomacy" on the case.
Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, criticised the way the decision was announced at a press conference, rather in Parliament.
"On the handling, and the spin, and the manipulation, this Government put publicity before responsibility," he said.
Labour backbencher Elaine Murray, MSP for Dumfries, recalled events from the night of the Lockerbie disaster, in which 270 people died when a Pan Am Boeing 747 was blown up over the town.
"Even today, the town struggles under the yoke of being solely associated with the bombing," she said.
"One lady described in a recent letter to me her experience that night of hiding under her table with her three-month-old baby, seeing the light from the unexplained explosions and fire, breathing the fumes, convinced that they were going to die."
Former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell said assurances had been made that Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scotland.
"This agreement, this solemn undertaking, this reassurance for the families of the dead has been disregarded by the Justice Secretary and others, and our words will never mean as much again," he said.
"We Scots have been trusted the world over, our justice system has been admired for centuries – but in one announcement this reputation has been damaged, tarnished for years to come."
And he said Mr MacAskill should not have met Megrahi, a "Libyan secret service agent trained to manipulate and mislead".
But the debate heard one Labour MSP support the decision.
Malcolm Chisholm, MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith, said he will vote with the Government later tonight.
"I'm certainly not ashamed of holding the same views as Nelson Mandela on this or any other matter," he said.
"What has taken me aback, and in fact has surprised many others, is the strength of support for the decision that I myself have seen," he went on.
"Opinion is far more evenly divided on this issue than some people think.
"Equally, it is more divided internationally and even more divided among the victims' families."
Closing the debate, Mr Salmond sought to embarrass Labour over the latest disclosures.
"The argument is not that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister did anything wrong by revealing through the foreign minister to the Libyan government that they did not want Mr Al Megrahi to die in a Scottish prison," he said.
"What's wrong is that, while they were doing it, Labour in Scotland – either knowing or not knowing about it – tabled a motion attacking the Justice Secretary." he said.
"At what stage will Labour accept that to pursue an attack on the Justice Secretary is monumental double standards?"
Turning his fire on the Liberal Democrats, Mr Salmond cited prominent Lib Dems who supported the decision.
He justified Mr MacAskill's visit to Megrahi in jail, saying Megrahi chose to make direct representations, and failing to meet him may have breached natural justice and laid the minister open to the risk of judicial review.
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