Lockerbie families' fury at MacAskill's 'taunts'

KENNY MacAskill was last night criticised by relatives of those who died in the Lockerbie disaster, after using his decision to release the bomber to taunt his political opponents.

In his keynote address to the SNP conference in Inverness, Scotland's justice secretary received two standing ovations from the party faithful as he said that to act without mercy towards Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was to "debase the beliefs which we seek to uphold". He also mocked Labour MPs and MSPs who, he claimed, had told him they supported his decision in private, only to oppose it in public.

But Mr MacAskill's attack appeared to have backfired last night as relatives in the United States of those who died in the bombing of PanAm flight 103 in December 1988 said they were "surprised" by the sight of the justice secretary being applauded at the conference.

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Frank Duggan, of the families group Victims of Flight 103, said: "I don't know what his political future will be, but the name 'MacAskill' will go down in history for his role in a miscarriage of justice."

He said that, instead of receiving ovations, Mr MacAskill must release all the medical information held on Megrahi's health, both before and since his release. The bomber, who was released on 20 August, is believed still to be at home in Tripoli, receiving treatment for prostate cancer.

He was released by Mr MacAskill on compassionate grounds after doctors concluded that a reasonable prognosis of his life expectancy was three months. That prognosis was vital, because guidelines suggest that inmates can be freed only if they have less than three months to live.

Megrahi will have been free for three months on 20 November, when Mr MacAskill can be sure to face further questions about the methodology behind his decision.

Yesterday, the Libyan embassy refused to comment on the convicted bomber's current state of health.

However, with the three-month date fast approaching, Mr MacAskill chose to go on the attack yesterday, claiming that his Labour opponents had failed a test of character over the decision.

In a parliamentary vote in September, all Labour MSPs, apart from the former health minister Malcolm Chisholm, voted against the decision to release Megrahi.

But Mr MacAskill said yesterday: "Iain Gray said he opposed my decision, but only after I had taken it. Gordon Brown couldn't decide whether he was for it or against it.

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"Many Labour MPs and MSPs have since told me that they agreed with my decision, but none of them have spoken out."

He added: "Only Malcolm Chisholm had the courage of his convictions."

In a short, 18-minute speech, the justice secretary also said the Scottish Government's track record in taking "big decisions" had shown that "we've got what it takes".

He added: "Scotland's laws and Scottish values dictate that justice must be done, but that mercy must be available.

"To act otherwise would be to discard the values by which we see to live and debase the beliefs which we seek to uphold.

"I said in parliament that it was my decision and my decision alone," Mr MacAskill went on. "It was not based on political, economic or diplomatic grounds.

"It was taken the right way, for the right reasons, and I believe it was the right decision."

The claim that Labour MPs and MSPs had privately backed Mr MacAskill was rebutted by the party last night. However, at least one Labour MSP contacted by The Scotsman said there had been doubts expressed in private meetings before the parliamentary debate about the party's opposition to the decision.

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The source said that there were only one or two MSPs who had expressed doubts about their opposition, before agreeing to swing behind their own leader.

Shadow justice secretary Richard Baker said that he was "personally sickened" by the sight of Mr MacAskill "grandstanding" on the issue of Megrahi's release.

He went on: "I know that most Scots agree with me that his decision to send Megrahi back to Libya was deeply wrong.

"Instead of trying to shift attention away from the mishandling of the process, I am challenging him to publish the representations of those who decried this decision."

But the pressure was applied by relatives in the US, who, following Mr MacAskill's speech, said he should release all the medical reports he received before Megrahi's release.

Mr Duggan said: "Instead of ovations, Mr MacAskill should have to release the medical diagnosis, if he has one, that he used as his reason to release the convicted bomber."

He said there were still questions about the advice which had been given to Mr MacAskill prior to the bomber's release.

He said: "The medical report (published by the Scottish Government] was redacted and presented privately by the doctors who were pressed into service.

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"The report talked about Megrahi's mental problems and his depression from missing his family," said Mr Duggan. "That was totally irrelevant. What was at issue was his physical condition, not his mental state."

New medical reports have been received in Scotland from Megrahi's doctors in Libya.

Under the conditions of his licence, Megrahi must send back details of his condition every month. However, the authorities in Scotland say that, for legal reasons, they would not make it public. Theoretically, if Megrahi's health improved, he could be asked to return to prison in Scotland.

However, Mr Duggan said: "There are no privacy issues here that would prevent the release of medical information, since Megrahi was pleading for release based on his allegation that he had less than three months to live."

If Megrahi does survive for more than three months, focus is sure to return to the decision-making process. A report from the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) released in August showed there were doubts about Megrahi's life expectancy among the specialists who saw him before he was released.

The SPS medical report disclosed that: "Whether or not prognosis is more or less than three months, no specialist would be 'willing to say'."

However, Megrahi's personal physician said his condition "declined significantly" between 26 July and 3 August. Consequently, the report concluded that a life expectancy of three months was deemed a "reasonable estimate".