Video: Anger over release of Pan Am bomber

updated 8/24/2009 1:06:17 PM ET 2009-08-24T17:06:17

Britain has scrapped a visit to Libya by Prince Andrew amid controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

The prince has visited the country several times in his role as a British trade ambassador, and his office said last week that a trip for next month was in the planning stages.

But Buckingham Palace said Monday there were no plans now for the prince to visit Libya.

Last week Scottish officials released convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer. In all, 270 people died in the 1988 airline bombing.

British officials say Libya promised he would be given a low-key welcome. But he was greeted at a Tripoli airport by hundreds of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags.

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the warm homecoming welcome for al-Megrahi breached assurances from Libyan authorities that "any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion."

"It is a matter of great regret that Mr. (al-) Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner," MacAskill told the Scottish parliament. "It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie."

Emergency meeting
In the meantime, Scottish legislators gathered Monday for an emergency meeting on the government's decision to release the Lockerbie bomber as critics claimed the act could severely damage relations with the United States.

The government of First Minister Alex Salmond has faced unrelenting criticism from the both the U.S. government and the families of American bombing victims for freeing Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.

The Libyan — the only man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 airline bombing — was released last week on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill with prostate cancer.

In a strongly worded letter to the Scottish government, FBI director Robert Mueller said al-Megrahi's release gave comfort to terrorists , while Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said releasing the bomber was "obviously a political decision."

Lawmakers want to question Salmond's minority government about the decision, with some calling for MacAskill to resign. MacAskill has said the decision was his alone, followed all the correct procedures under Scottish law and was not influenced by political considerations.

Some Scottish lawmakers want to distance themselves from the decision by Scotland's nationalist administration, which advocates full independence from Britain.

"Today is about showing the world that Kenny MacAskill did not speak for Scotland in making this decision," said Richard Baker, the Labour Party's Scottish justice spokesman.

Criticism ‘wholly wrong’
However, former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish slammed Mueller's criticism as "wholly wrong" and said the FBI chief should keep his thoughts to himself.

"The Americans have a right to make their views known, but I think it was wholly wrong for the director of the FBI to speak in such striking terms, which were personal, and which made a direct attack on the Scottish criminal justice system," said McLeish, who served as Scottish leader from 2000 until his resignation in 2001.

McLeish also disputed the notion that the Lockerbie bomber's release would poison relations with the United States. Web sites have been set up in the U.S. calling for a boycott of Scottish goods and visits to the country.

"I don't buy for a minute the idea that this is going to destroy our special relationship with the U.S., nor will it destroy trade between Britain and America," McLeish told the BBC.

As for a boycott, "it would bother me if I thought it was going to happen," he said, dismissing the idea as the brainchild of "certain newscasters and shock jocks."

On Sunday, Salmond said it was wrong to assume that all those affected by the bombing were opposed to al-Megrahi's release.

"I understand the huge and strongly held views of the American families, but that's not all the families who were affected by Lockerbie," Salmond told the BBC. "A number of the families, particularly in the U.K., take a different view and think that we made the right decision."

Compassionate release
Scottish officials also have stressed the differences between British and American judicial systems. Compassionate release is a regular feature of the Scottish system when a prisoner is near death.

Top British cancer specialists say al-Megrahi has less than three months to live.

But some critics have accused the authorities of approving the release to boost business ties between Britain and Libya, which has vast oil reserves. Such suspicions were heightened after Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi thanked Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth II for "encouraging" the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the suggestion there had been a deal was "completely implausible and actually quite offensive."

On Monday, a spokesman for Brown said al-Megrahi's release was "a uniquely sensitive and difficult decision" but he denied allegations it pleased terrorists.

"This was a decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland," he said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "I don't see that anyone can argue that this gives succor."

Questions about conviction
The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in Britain's worst terrorist attack.

Britain and the United States have criticized the lavish reception al-Megrahi received Thursday, when a flag-waving crowd of hundreds greeted him at Tripoli's airport. Britain is reconsidering a planned visit to Libya by Prince Andrew, a top British trade envoy, in response.

Some bereaved relatives, particularly in Britain, dispute al-Megrahi's 2001 conviction, and a 2007 Scottish judicial review of his case found grounds for an appeal.

He was convicted largely on the evidence of a Maltese shopkeeper, who identified al-Megrahi as having bought a shirt — scraps of which were later found wrapped around the bomb.

Al-Megrahi has steadily maintained his innocence, but last week dropped his appeal so that he could be released on compassionate grounds.

More on: Lockerbie | Libya

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