by SHAUN MILNE
BREAKING NEWS: LOCKERBIE bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi has been freed by the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
The announcement came at a press conference in Edinburgh today.
Mr MacAskill said the crime committed by Megrahi, 57, had happened long before his Government was in place, but conceded the decision was now his and his alone.
al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of PanAM Flight 103 on December 21, 1988 which resulted in the deaths of 259 people aboard the Maid of the Seas airliner, and a further 11 on the ground in Lockerbie where the jet came down.
Mr MacAskill, wearing a dark suit, red and purple striped tie, first dealt with an application by the Libyan Governement for a prisoner transfer agreement, rejecting his release on those grounds.
But he said he was moved to grant his release on purely compassionate grounds – in this case Megrahi’s terminal prognosis of suffering prostate cancer – after medical advice stated it was now expected to kill him within months.
He said: “Mr al-Megrahi faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.
“He is going to die.”
“It is my decision Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die.”
Immediately the US Government in Washington said it “deeply regretted” the move.
But Mr MacAskill, a lawyer turned politician, explained his decision as protecting Scotland’s unique moral code.
He said: “Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from other lands.
“Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been breaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive.
“Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.
“However, Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule.
“It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.
“In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic.
“The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.
“Mr Al-Megrahi did now show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days.
“No compassion was shown by him to them. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.
“Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
“For these reasons alone it is my decision that Mr Al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”
There was immediate condemnation from opposition parties.
Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, MSP, said: “If I was First Minister, Megrahi would not be going back to Libya.
“The decision to release him is wrong.
“He was convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in our history, the mass murder of 270 people.
“While one can have sympathy for the family of a gravely ill prisoner, on balance our duty is to honour and respect the victims of Lockerbie and have compassion for them.
“The SNP’s handling of this case has let down Scotland.
“The cynical manner in which this decision has been spun out over the last month with a series of leaks, briefings and the Justice Secretary’s ill-advised visit to Greenock Prison was not fitting behaviour by a Scottish government.
“Kenny MacAskill’s conduct has damaged the Scottish Justice system and, in turn, Scotland’s international reputation.
“The First Minister Alex Salmond has also shown a lack of leadership as he hid away from this issue as it was falling apart.
“This whole sorry affair shows the SNP as unfit when it comes to the tough decisions of government.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott MSP said: “This is a disappointing verdict.
“Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi stands convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in modern Scottish history. Scotland’s most senior judges agreed that he should serve this term in a Scottish prison.
“The real lesson of this shambles for the SNP is that Government is about responsibility, not publicity.
“We’ve endured a simply dreadful two weeks as Kenny MacAskill dithered over this big decision while the SNP spin machine was in overdrive.
“I feel sorry for the victims’ families who have been put through this charade.
“They are unlikely to hear the truth of the wheeling and dealing that has gone on. Many also would have wanted to see the Megrahi appeal run its course.
“Liberal Democrats believe that major decisions like this must be transparent. Kenny MacAskill should come before Parliament as soon as possible and explain this verdict.
“We need to know what deal was struck, when it was struck and what was said on that unprecedented and inappropriate Ministerial visit to Megrahi’s cell in Greenock prison.”
Iain Gray was backed by Richard Baker, Labour shadow Justice Secretary, who demanded teh recall of Parliament.
He said: “The case for an immediate recall of Parliament for an emergency statement is now undeniable.
“Kenny MacAskill’s handling of this issue has been utterly woeful and he now needs to answer to Parliament.
“His decision to visit a convicted murderer in prison has shown just how bad his judgement is and he needs to explain himself.
“The Scottish public and the families of the victims need to hear directly from Mr MacAskill why he arrived at this decision and why he mishandled the whole affair.”
However Church leaders welcomed the move.
Rev Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland said: “This decision has sent a message to the world about what it is to be Scottish.
“We are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us. Do we choose mercy even when they did not chose mercy?
“This was not about whether one man was guilty or innocent.
“Nor is it about whether he had a right to mercy but whether we as a nation, despite the continuing pain of many, are willing to be merciful.
“I understand the deep anger and grief that still grips the souls of the victims’ families and I respect their views. But to them I would say justice is not lost in acting in mercy.
“Instead our deepest humanity is expressed for the better. To choose mercy is the tough choice and today our nation met that challenge.”
“We have gained something significant as a Nation by this decision.
“It is a defining moment for all of us.”
However Scottish Tory Bill Aitken MSP, the Shadow Justice Secretary, was furious.
He said: “I deeply regret this decision by Alex Salmond’s Government.
“It now has a duty to recall and explain to Parliament why it has decided to release Mr. Megrahi and why he is being allowed to return to Libya when it is perfectly possibly for him to stay in Scotland.
“As recently as December 2008, his family lived here in a house that was security cleared by the police.
“Alex Salmond’s Government has mishandled this whole affair and has been found wanting on the international stage.
“He now needs to show some political dignity, recall Parliament and answer a growing list of unanswered questions.”
“Why was the media briefed before the relatives of the victims? Were there any deals done between the Crown, The Justice Department, the Scottish Government and Mr. Megrahi, his advisors or the Libyan authorities?
“Why should the public continue to have confidence in Alex Salmond’s Government’s ability to make the right decision after its cack-handed handling of the whole affair?
“Alex Salmond’s Government has done a disservice to the relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie atrocity.
“If Mr Megrahi is hailed as a hero on his return to Libya then it will only add insult to injury.”