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Scottish Justice Minister Defends Bomber's Release

Scotland's Justice Secretary defended his decision to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber before the Scottish parliament Monday. Parliament was recalled early to address the issue, which has strained relations between Scotland and the United States.

In an emotional session of the Scottish parliament, frank exchanges were the norm. Parliament reconvened early from its summer recess to consider the implications of the release of the only man convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Two hundred seventy people were killed in the attack.

Opposition Scottish Labor leader Iain Gray was blunt in his criticism of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who made the call to allow Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to leave prison and return home to Libya on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill.

Gray said a release on compassionate grounds must be tempered with justice, the rights of the victims must always be preserved.

"Last week, the Scottish government made a wrong decision in the wrong way with wrong consequences," said Iain Gray.

Gray stressed that, while the justice secretary was required to consider the application for compassionate release, he was not bound to grant it.

But Secretary MacAskill strongly stood by the course he chose.

"It was my decision," said Kenny MacAskill. "I stand by it and live with the consequences."

MacAskill underlined that he knew what the families of the victims were going through, but upon weighing all options, he said, allowing Megrahi to return home to Libya was the best solution.

"The pain and suffering, as I said, will remain forever," he said. "Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. But, as I said, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one no court in any jurisdiction, in any land could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is gong to die."

Many close to the case in Britain were disappointed last week when Megrahi dropped his appeal, which would have allowed for a review and examination of the evidence. That could have shed new light on those behind the bombing and what warnings the West may have had that such an attack could be a possibility back in December 1988.

MacAskill said if a full independent investigation can at some stage be mounted, he would welcome that, and he pledged Scotland would assist such an effort in any way possible.

"There remain concerns to some on the wider issues of the Lockerbie atrocity," said MacAskill. "This is a global issue and international in its nature. The questions to be asked and answered are beyond the jurisdiction of Scots law and the restricted remit of the Scottish government. If a further inquiry were felt to be appropriate, then it should be initiated by those with the required power and authority. The Scottish government would be happy to fully cooperate in such an inquiry."

For his part Megrahi has steadily maintained his innocence. He returned to Libya Thursday to a hero's welcome.