The Release of the Lockerbie Bomber

This is the introduction to the Scotland Devolution Monitoring Report
September 2009 but with added references. For the full reports see

The decision by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds stands out as the major event in this period.[i] Indeed, it is difficult to think of any other ‘Scottish’ issue that would command such international attention or prompt so much analysis on the SNP’s governing competence on the world stage.[ii] The issue is multi-faceted and still unfolding in the public domain. As such, we have witnessed a classic media process in which attention lurches from one aspect of the story to another.[iii] In July, when much less was known (and there were rumours that MacAskill was ‘minded’ to release him[iv]), an administrative focus on how MacAskill conducted his inquiry was followed by claims that he would struggle to meet the deadline for a decision[v] and that much depended on whether or not al-Megrahi would drop his appeal[vi] (al-Megrahi has since protested his innocence[vii]). We then had a period considering the extent to which MacAskill would be subject and vulnerable to a wide range of political pressure, from domestic media coverage (of the families of victims, members of the emergency services) to public opinion, opposition parties and international representations (particularly from the US, with figures such as US senators, the FBI director Robert Mueller and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton highly vocal on the issue) against al-Megrahi’s release[viii] (with some speculation about reverse pressure from the UK Government to allow his release as a way to foster closer economic and political links between the UK and Libya).

Other periods focused on how this relates to wider forms of parliamentary political pressure on MacAskill following the recent prospect of a vote of no confidence in Parliament (although 3.1 shows that the Scottish Parliament only became involved formally after the decision was made)[ix] and how Scotland would look on the world stage. Then came the decision and an extended period of discussion on MacAskill’s reasons for al-Megrahi’s release. More could have been made of the Scottish-UK intergovernmental issue had MacAskill agreed to Megrahi’s release under the UK-Libya prisoner transfer agreement devised in 2007, particularly since Alex Salmond was highly critical of then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s involvement in the agreement and the absence of FCO consultation with the Scottish Government. However, if anything, the lack of Scotland-UK contact seemed the bigger issue.[x] Instead, MacAskill released Megrahi on compassionate grounds, based on a principle in Scots law that prisoners should be eligible for compassionate release if they are terminally ill and close to death. This allowed him and Salmond to present a narrative based Scottish ministerial autonomy, leaving others to explore the degree of external interference. Indeed, a consistent focus throughout was on the extent to which this was a Scottish rather than a UK decision, and it became clear very early on that the UK Government was eager to be seen to take a hands-off role, respecting the principle of executive devolution. This appeared to backfire on Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally when he was roundly criticised for making no comment at all,[xi] particularly given the extent of the rumours about deals done (‘in the desert’[xii]) between the UK and Libyan Governments over business contracts (and, to a lesser extent, concerns about links between the decision and terrorism[xiii]).

So far, although the decision initially appeared unpopular with Scots and potentially damaged the SNP’s electoral chances, it has not undermined the status of the minority Scottish Government. Neither has it produced significantly greater pressure for MacAskill (already under parliamentary pressure over such issues as knife crime and court reforms[xiv]) to resign as Justice Secretary. Much opposition party criticism has focussed on MacAskill’s handling of the case, including not only his decision to visit al-Megrahi in prison[xv] but also his reliance on particular sources of medical advice to determine the severity of his cancer[xvi] and the amount of time he had to live, and his rejection of other solutions related to compassionate release (including the prospect of housing and policing al-Megrahi in a care home or hospice in Scotland[xvii]). Some eyes have also been raised when MacAskill’s initial speech made reference to the links between compassion and religion. Yet, there was not a meaningful call for MacAskill’s resignation. In part, this is because Alex Salmond went at great lengths to publicly back MacAskill[xviii], if need be by releasing official documents[xix] (and because many figures, including Nelson Mandela, supported the decision).[xx] The SNP’s position was also helped by growing criticism of the role of the UK Government.

Al-Megrahi’s welcoming reception in Libya (with much of the crowd waving Saltires[xxi]) threatened to stoke up the issue further and, for a short period, the international reaction was intense,[xxii] even extending to some US campaigns to punish Scotland economically.[xxiii] US President Obama was also said to be ‘disappointed’ by the decision. Yet, there are now signs that attention has moved on and that initial reactions have been tempered.[xxiv]

[i] 20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Al Megrahi to be released on compassionate grounds’ The Scotsman
20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: MacAskill hits out at actions of UK government’ The Scotsman
20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Kenny MacAskill’s statement on Al Megrahi’s release in full’ he Scotsman–
1.9.09 ‘Lockerbie decision’ Scottish Government News Release
24.8.09 ‘Statement on Lockerbie bomber’s release’ Scottish Government News Release
20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie prisoner released’ Scottish Government News Release
24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber debate – as it happened’ The Scotsman–
[ii] A. Cochrane 17.8.09 ‘Scotland is finding the big fish harder to handle’ The Telegraph
M. Linklater 18.8.09 ‘A disastrous debut on the world stage’ The Times
A. Carmb 23.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber’s release ‘damaged Scotland’s standing’’ he Telegraph
[iii] See Trench, September 2007: 47 for a discussion of Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government’s criticism of the UK Government decision to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.
[iv] C. Sweeney 5.8.09 ‘Release closer for Lockerbie bomber’ The Times
D. Maddox 17.8.09 ‘Hopes dashed for in-depth inquiry into Lockerbie’ The Scotsman
D. Maddox 18.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber ‘has been sending home belongings for past six weeks’’ The Scotsman
S. Carrell 19.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to be freed’ The Guardian
E. Barnes 12.8.09 ‘Government rejects claims Lockerbie bomber set to be released’ The Scotsman
[v] C. Sweeney 5.7.09 ‘MacAskill holds talks over fate of Lockerbie bomber’ he Times
1.8.09 ‘MacAskill unable to meet deadline on Megrahi appeal’ the Scotsman
1.8.09 ‘Justice Secretary will not meet Megrahi deadline’ The Herald
[vi] A. Philip 24.8.09 ‘’Political influence over legal cases is a weakness’’ The Scotsman
23.8.09 ‘Hans Kochler: ‘I strongly suspect he was pressurised into dropping appeal’’ The Scotsman
C. Sweeney 19.8.09 ‘Edinburgh clears way for Lockerbie bomber Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi’s move to Libya’ The Times
21.8.09 ‘Crown drops Lockerbie appeal’ Scottish Government News Release
A. Macleod 31.8.09 ‘I suspect deal over al-Megrahi appeal, says former ambassador’ The Times
[vii] L. Adams 18.9.09 ‘Law chief condemns Megrahi’ The Herald
25.8.09 ‘Megrahi: ‘MSPs must do more to probe the decision’’ The Scotsman
[viii] T. Peterkin 5.7.09 ‘Lockerbie relatives to demand Megrahi stays in Scots jail ‘The Scotsman
C. Sweeney 6.7.09 ‘Do not set ‘guilty’ Lockerbie bomber free, detectives plead’ The Times
R. Dinwoodie 11.8.09 ‘Lord Advocate: no political interference in bomber case’ The herald
L. Davidson 17.8.09 ’ Kenny MacAskill gives in to US pressure over Lockerbie bomber’ The Times
18.8.09 ‘US senators urge MacAskill to keep Lockerbie bomber in prison’ The Scotsman
17.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber’s release ‘delayed by pressure from Hillary Clinton’’ he Times
A. Spillus 18.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bombing: seven US senators urge Scotland not to release Megrahi’ The Telegraph
L. Davidson 17.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber’s case is a lesson in how to lose friends’ The Times
M. Linklater 13.8.09 ‘Compassion for the Lockerbie bomber, agony for the families’ The Times
J. Allardyce and M. Macaskill 16.8.09 ‘Majority do not support Megrahi release’ he Times
17.8.09 ‘MSP demands Megrahi debate’ The Herald
L. Davidson 17.8.09 ‘No recall for MSPs over Lockerbie bomber’ The Times
17.7.09 ‘Scottish Government under pressure to recall Parliament over Lockerbie decision’ The Times
24.8.09 ‘MSP anger’ The Scotsman
I. Swanson 21.8.09 ‘Margo calls for answers as Megrahi returns to Libya’ The Scotsman
I. Swanson 24.8.09 ‘Salmond facing confidence vote over Megrahi release’ The Scotsman
R. Dinwoodie 25.8.09 ‘MacAskill defends decision as rivals fail to land blows’ he Herald
J. Swaine and A. Cramb ‘Kenny MacAskill to face furious MSPs over Lockerbie bomber release’ The Telegraph
24.8.09 ‘Minister stands by bomber release’ BBC
26.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber: Tories accuse MacAskill of misleading public’ The Scotsman
25.8.09 ‘Iain Gray: MacAskill ‘should publish notes of Megrahi meeting’’ The Scotsman
R. Dinwoodie 25.8.09 ‘MacAskill defends decision as rivals fail to land blows’ The Herald
A. Macleod 26.8.09 ‘MacAskill ‘misled’ MSPs over al-Megrahi release’ The Times
D. Maddox 3.9.09 ‘MSPs say bomber release was wrong’ The Scotsman
R. Dinwoodie 22.9.09 ‘Holyrood to hold inquiry on release of Megrahi’ The herald
M. Linklater 24.8.09 ‘Analysis: the phrase that could haunt Kenny MacAskill over Lockerbie decision’ The Times
S. Carrell 25.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber decision leaves SNP facing censure from furious opposition’ The Guardian
A. Macleod, S. Jagger and R. Kerbaj 24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie release could topple Scottish government’ The Times
R. Dinwoodie 26.8.09 ‘LibDem rebels are likely to kill off censure motion’ The Herald
D. Maddox 25.8.09 ‘MacAskill to survive as MSPs back off key vote’ The Scotsman–
T. Peterkin 23.9.09 ‘MacAskill faces probe over Megrahi’ The Scotsman
D. Maddox 9.9.09 ‘Full inquiry to be held on Megrahi’ The Scotsman
[x] 18.9.09 ‘Megrahi release highlights ‘immature’ relationship between governments’ The Herald
P. Reynolds 30.8.09 ‘Megrahi freed: Some answers’ BBC
[xi] 21.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Miliband refuses to say whether he agrees with MacAskill over bomber’s release’ The Scotsman
J. Swaine 23.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber release: pressure mounting on Gordon Brown’ The Telegraph
24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie release: Gordon Brown should tell us what he said to Colonel Gaddafi’ The Telegraph
25.8.09 ‘Pressure mounts on Brown to give his views of release’ The Scotsman–
S. Coates 24.8.09 ‘Downing Street says Lockerbie release is too sensitive to comment on’ The Times
M. Settle 25.8.09 ‘Brown under fire over ‘cowardly silence’’ The Herald
24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie release: Gordon Brown should tell us what he said to Colonel Gaddafi’ The Telegraph
J. Swaine 24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber release: Gordon Brown silence ‘absurd’, says Nick Clegg’ The Telegraph
A. Porter 23.8.09 ‘Analysis: Gordon Brown is strangely reluctant to rush back to handle this crisis’ The Telegraph
25.8.09 ‘Dominic Lawson: The Prime Minister’s silence over Lockerbie is eloquent’ The Independent
T. Crichton 26.8.09 ‘Evasive Brown leaves himself open to ridicule’ The Herald
S. Coates 26.8.09 ‘Gordon Brown ‘damaged the UK’ by ducking questions over Lockerbie bomber ‘ The Times
J. Booth 25.8.09 ‘Gordon Brown finally breaks silence on Lockerbie to condemn Libya’ The Times
S. Coates 27.8.09 ‘Jack Straw is first British minister to question Lockerbie bomber’s release ‘ The Times
P. Riddell 28.8.09 ‘Brown is wrong to say al-Megrahi’s release is a matter for Scotland’ The Times
S. Jagger and T. Baldwin 30.8.09 ‘Downing Street approved Lockerbie bomber deal’ The Times
M. White and S. carrell 30.8.09 ‘Jack Straw denies allegations he gave green light to release Megrahi’ The Guardian
30.8.09 ‘Straw ‘backed down’ over Megrahi’ BBC
1.9.09 ‘Brown ‘opposed bomber jail death’’ BBC
1.9.09 ‘Libyan minister piles new Lockerbie pressure on Brown’ The Independent
M. Settle 9.9.09 ‘Brown accused of demoralising Labour over Megrahi affair’ The Herald
P. Wintour and S. Carrell 2.9.09 ‘Gordon Brown finally admits support for Lockerbie bomber release’ The Guardian
C. Woodhouse 12.9.09 ‘Brown ‘raised release of bomber during Obama call’’ The Scotsman
10.9.09 ‘Barack Obama tells Gordon Brown of ‘disappointment’ over Lockerbie release’ The Telegraph
A. Porter 24.8.09 ‘Gordon Brown ‘cowardly’ over Lockerbie bomber silence’ The Telegraph
25.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber: Gordon Brown denies he had role in Megrahi’s release’ The Telegraph
A. Woodcock 28.9.09 ‘Megrahi interference would have been a mistake – PM’ The Scotsman
S. Jagger and T. Baldwin 30.8.09 ‘Downing Street approved Lockerbie bomber deal’ The Times
R. Hawkins 24.8.09 ‘Brown’s Lockerbie release dilemma’ BBC
[xii] N. Watt and J. Borger 19.8.09 ‘Ministers pushed Lockerbie treaty ‘to protect oil interests’’ The Guardian
19.8.09 ‘Bomber desperate to return home as cancer reaches the terminal stage, say doctors’ The Scotsman
C. Sweeney and L. Davidson 21.8.09 ‘‘Deal in the desert’ put Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi on path to freedom’ The Times
M. Campbell 23.8.09 ‘The Libyan Ultimatum’ The Times
E. Barnes 23.8.09 ‘No ‘desert deal’ to free Megrahi says former PM’ he Scotsman
22.8.09 ‘Megrahi: deal or no deal?’ The Herald
D. Blair 19.8.09 ‘Megrahi: What price justice?’ The Telegraph
25.8.09 ‘Fate of Swiss expatriates in Libya was ominous for al-Megrahi case’ The Times
D. Maddox 28.8.09 ‘Come clean on seven UK-Libya liaisons before bomber freed, ministers told’ The Scotsman
28.8.09 ‘’No deals’ linked to freed bomber’ BBC
E. Barnes 31.8.09 ‘Analysis: Nuances are drowned out by the blunt assertion that they did a deal, so they’re all at it’ The Scotsman
T. Peterkin 29.8.09 ‘’Blair deal linked to Megrahi, but not by name’ – Gaddafi’s son’ The Scotsman
30.8.09 ‘Megrahi trade deal untrue – Straw’ BBC
E. Pykett 5.9.09 ‘Oil behind Megrahi deal, admits Straw’ The Scotsman
D. Maddox 4.9.09 ‘SNP accused of Qatar trade talks deal to free Megrahi’ The Scotsman–
J. Allardyce 13.9.09 ‘Tony Blair linked to arms trade with Libya’ The Times
T. Peterkin 16.9.09 ‘New Megrahi questions as NHS to train Libyan doctors’ The Scotsman
A. Porter 27.8.09 ‘Four Labour ministers met Libyans before bomber’s release’ The Times
P. Riddell 28.8.09 ‘Times poll: 61% think al-Megrahi release was about oil, not compassion’ The Times
[xiii] 24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie move ‘not terror boost’’ BBC News
L. Davidson 31.8.09 ‘Terror backlash’ claim undermines MacAskill’ The Times
24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie move ‘not terror boost’’ BBC News
[xiv] J. Allardyce 23.8.09 ‘Kenny MacAskill: no stranger to controversy’ The Times
20.8.09 ‘Justice secretary who has faced barrage of ‘soft touch’ accusations’ The Scotsman
L. Davidson 21.8.09 ‘Nerves show as Kenny MacAskill faces the world’s media; The Times
[xv] T. Peterkin 6.8.09 ‘Appointment with the Lockerbie bomber’ he Scotsman–
R. Lydall 13.7.09 ‘MacAskill to meet Lockerbie bomber over jail transfer’ The Scotsman
A. Macloed 27.8.09 ‘MacAskill prison visit absurd, says Lord Fraser’ The Times
[xvi] A. Macleod and M. Linklater 28.8.09 ‘New row over ‘non-expert’ cancer diagnosis of Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi’ The Times
[xvii] A. Macleod 26.8.09 ‘Strathclyde Police ‘could have protected Lockerbie bomber in Scotland’’ The Times
27.8.09 ‘Plans drawn up if bomber stayed here after release’ The Scotsman–
A. Macleod 27.8.09 ‘SNP accused of interfering with police independence’ The Times
[xviii] C. Sweeney 23.8.09 ‘Alex Salmond hits back after FBI chief attacks Lockerbie bomber release’ The Times
23.8.09 ‘Salmond backs decision to release Lockerbie bomber’ The Scotsman
24.8.09 ‘FBI chief’s attack ‘out of order’’ BBC
[xix] N. Watt 1.9.09 ‘No 10 to publish ‘all relevant’ Lockerbie correspondence with MacAskill’ The Guardian
D. Maddox 25.8.09 ‘Holyrood seeks to reveal all documents over release’ The Scotsman
B. Currie 25.8.09 ‘Megrahi visit details to go public’ The Herald
[xx] C. Watt 25.8.09 ‘Lockerbie families round on US critics’ The herald
30.8.09 ‘Mandela backs Lockerbie decision’ BBC
C. Baillie 31.8.09 ‘Bomber’s release gets Mandela’s backing’ The Scotsman
I. Macwhirter 24.8.09 ‘MacAskill followed the letter of the law’ The Guardian
D. Maddox 26.8.09 ‘Churches call for free vote on release row’ The Scotsman
25.8.09 ‘John Curtice: Labour has to be careful in its attacks on the SNP – after all, its hands are not wholly clean’ The Independent
25.8.09 ‘Berlusconi defies his critics to visit Gaddafi for independence day’ The Times
B. Currie 25.8.09 ‘Archbishop: MacAskill decision was sign of strength’ The Herald
25.8.09 ‘Lockerbie case: When mercy is messy’ The Guardian
23.8.09 ‘A question of human rights’ The Herald
30.8.09 ‘MacAskill’s crime wasn’t to release a murderer but to disobey America’ The Herald
29.8.09 ‘Letter urges Clinton to show respect for people of Lockerbie’ The Scotsman
[xxi] 21.8.09 ‘David Maddox: Hero’s welcome is nightmare for SNP’ The Scotsman
20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Bomber Al Megrahi flies home to Libya’ The Scotsman
J. Chapman and I. Drury 22.8.09 ‘Gaddafi embraces Lockerbie bomber and thanks his ‘courageous friend’ Gordon Brown for releasing him’ the Dailymail
J. Cusick 22.8.09 ‘Brown backtracks on threat over hero’s welcome for bomber’ The Herald
25.8.09 ‘Libya broke promise not to celebrate Lockerbie release, says Kenny MacAskill’ The Times
25.8.09 ‘PM ‘repulsed’ at bomber welcome’ BBC
J. Cusick 22.8.09 ‘Brown backtracks on threat over hero’s welcome for bomber’ The Herrald
A. Porter 24.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber: Libya broke promise over hero’s welcome, says Scottish justice minister’ The Telegraph
[xxii] 20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Hillary Clinton condemns release of Al Megrahi’ The Scotsman
20.8.09 ‘Lockerbie: Conservative leader David Cameron condemns release of Lockerbie bomber’ The Scotsman
J. Booth 20.8.09 ‘Obama says release of Lockerbie bomber Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi is ‘a mistake’’ The Times
M. Linklater 21.8.09 ‘Devolution has been damaged by this act of leniency’ he Times
23.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber: Robert Mueller’s letter to Kenny MacAskill’ The Times
G. Warner 25.8.09 ‘Nice one, Kenny MacAskill… now they’re all angry with us Scots’ The Telegraph…-now-theyre-all-angry-with-us-Scots.html
B. Currie 25.8.09 ‘Only the French have faced so much US wrath’ The Herald
P. Hutcheon, Tom, Gordon and J. Cusick 22.8.09 ‘America’s rage’ The Herald
I. Stelzer 25.8.09 ‘Lockerbie bomber: A grievous blow to the Special Relationship’ The Telegraph
27.8.09 ‘Most Scots say MacAskill wrong on bomber release’ The Scotsman
29.8.09 ‘US anger at failure to discuss release plans’ The Scotsman
M. Savage 1.9.09 ‘MPs to look at effect of Megrahi release on relations with US’ The Independent
R. Winnett 15.9.09 ‘Government ‘sold its soul’ over Libya trade deals, claim police’ The Telegraph
P. Reynolds 24.8.09 ‘Britain facing Lockerbie backlash’ BBC
22.8.09 ‘America’s rage’ the Herald
D. Maddox 29.8.09 ‘Three in five Scots oppose Megrahi’s release’ The Scotsman
[xxiii] 24.8.09 ‘Senator wants bank bailout cash returned in bomber release row’ The Scotsman
C. Sweeney 24.8.09 ‘Website urges Americans to boycott Scotland over Lockerbie bomber release’ The Times
24.8.09 ‘Boycott calls over bomber release’ BBC
[xxiv] 22.9.09 ‘US ‘moves on’ after Megrahi release anger’ The Scotsman
C. Watt 21.9.09 ‘US calls a truce in row over Megrahi release’ The Herald

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