Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Lockerbie bomber jail visit 'inappropriate', say MSPs

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi
Megrahi was allowed to return to Libya to die

The Scottish justice secretary's visit to Greenock Prison to see the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was "inappropriate", an inquiry has said.

Kenny MacAskill made the decision to release terminally-ill Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from jail on compassionate grounds.

The probe by Holyrood's justice committee expressed concern about other aspects leading up to the release.

The Scottish government said Mr MacAskill had followed "due process".

Megrahi, who has cancer, was the only man convicted for the murder of 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21 December, 1988.

The decision to allow him to return home to Libya last August sparked a political storm.

In its inquiry report, the cross-party justice committee said it was "inappropriate" for Mr MacAskill to have visited Megrahi in jail before his release, citing comments from UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw that there was only an obligation to make written representations.

"The committee takes the view that such an issue need never have arisen if the matter had been considered on the basis of normal written representations in the normal way," stated the report.

MSPs said a second opinion could have been obtained on the medical evidence which paved the way for Megrahi's release, and faulted the reasoning behind Mr MacAskill's decision to reject a separate application for prisoner transfer (PTA) to a Libyan jail.

Jamie McIvor
BBC correspondent Jamie McIvor on the committee's findings

"The decision to grant the Lockerbie bomber a compassionate release polarised opinion - and so did the justice committee's inquiry into how the decision was reached.

"Their report is not unanimous. The majority of the conclusions were reached by a vote - support coming from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat committee members and opposition from SNP members. Indeed the SNP branded the investigation a kangaroo court.

"The remit of the inquiry was never to say whether Kenny MacAskill made the right call. This report will probably do nothing to change the minds of Mr MacAskill's supporters and critics. As convener Bill Aitken said, it is for those with an interest to read the report and make up their own minds.

"But some of the conclusions - for instance the need for greater clarity on the guidance for the criteria for compassionate release - were backed by all committee members and may help to make the process for such testing decisions clearer in the future even if the decisions themselves will remain exceptionally hard."

To read the report click here

The report concluded: "The committee is extremely concerned about some aspects of the process leading up to the decision, particularly the decision to allow representations in person by Mr al-Megrahi in Greenock Prison, the reasoning behind the refusal of the PTA application, the lack of clarity as to the basis on which compassionate release was granted and the fact that the announcement of the decision was not made to the parliament."

And MSPs said "much greater consideration" should have been given to releasing Megrahi to an address in Scotland, although the committee acknowledged the "significant resource and security" implications of such a move.

Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken, the committee convener, said Mr MacAskill's decision was a difficult one, but added: "This was a bad decision, made badly and not thought through."

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray added: "The decision to release Megrahi was the wrong one and it is also clear that it was after a completely botched process."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "The justice secretary followed due process every step of the way and he has repeatedly expressed his deepest sympathy for the relatives of all victims of the Lockerbie atrocity.

"Mr MacAskill's decision to allow Mr al-Megrahi to return to Libya to die was based on the medical information about his terminal condition, and the recommendations of the parole board and prison governor."

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