Parliamentary Report for the 24th of August, 2009: Megrahi release statement.
Statement to the Chamber about the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al–Megrahi
Following the unprecedented events of the previous week, the Parliament was recalled back a week early from summer recess in order to hear the Cabinet Secretary’s statement to the Chamber regarding his decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. As the Presiding Officer said as he welcomed the Chamber, “the eyes of many people around the globe are on the Parliament today” and MSPs must have been aware that never before has their Parliament been subject to such exposure. This may explain the slightly hushed atmosphere in the Chamber during the statement and the questions afterwards. As Margot MacDonald put it “The Scottish Parliament was on its best behaviour on Monday when MSPs sat up straight, didn’t talk to the person sitting next to them and listened in silence… .”
The Cabinet Secretary began his statement by reiterating many of the facts he had made when he announced the release, as well and providing clarity on a number of issues. He said that he had been “duty bound” to visit Mr al–Megrahi in prison given that it was his right to make representations in person to the Governmen. He went over the reasons why he rejected the option of prisoner transfer, saying this was because many of the American victims’ families had been led to believe that such a transfer would not take place, and when he sought the views of the UK Government who had signed the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya, they offered no representations about what had been promised and what had not, which he said he found ‘highly regrettable’. Turning to the decision about compassionate release he reiterated the advice he had received from doctors and police about the progression of the prisoner’s cancer and about the security implications should he be released into secure accommodation in Scotland. He said that the decision was based on the law of Scotland and on the values that he believed we sought to uphold. He said that it was a matter of great regret that Mr al–Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner, which showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie however, that did not change the fact that his decision had been made following due process and the values of Scotland.
Iain Gray for the Labour party acknowledged that it had been a difficult decision for the Cabinet Secretary to make, but he argued that it had been the wrong decision, made in the wrong way, and with the wrong consequences. He also questioned why Mr al–Megrahi had to make representations in person rather than in writing, and he sought further clarification about the connection between Mr al’Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal and the decision to release him. Mr MacAskill reiterated his points that he had made his decision on judicial grounds alone and that no deal had been struck with Mr al’Megrahi.
Annabel Goldie for the Conservatives wanted to know why the prisoner could not have been freed into a secure house or hospice or hospital, rather than to release him back home, saying that if Scottish police could managed to deal with security for the G8 then they could surely have protected a dying man for a number of months. Ms Goldie brought in Westminster for criticism as well, asking why the Prime Minister had up until that point remained silent. The Cabinet Secretary said that it was ‘ludicrous’ to claim that Mr al–Megrahi could have been kept in a hospice, saying this would turn it into a ‘travelling circus.’ He also quoted Archbishop Mario Conti who praised the Government’s decision, saying that ‘the showing of mercy in any situation is not a sign of weakness.’
Tavish Scott for the Liberal Democrats wanted to know why the decision had been made without the involvement of the Parliament, arguing that the biggest decision to have been made by Scotland in the past 10 years should have been made with greater discussion and more accountability. He also wanted clarification on why Mr al–Megrahi was visited in person and he questioned whether this decision would mean that no prisoner, however bad their crime, will ever have a request turned down again. Mr MacAskill responded that he would publish the notes that were made after his visit to Greenock prison, and he quoted a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Steel who had said that the decision to release on compassionate grounds was the right one.
During open questions that followed, MSPs wanted to know how and why the story was apparently leaked to the press a week before the decision was made, and more questions were asked about deals between Libya and the UK Government. Only Malcolm Chisholm (Labour) crossed Party divisions when he commended MacAskill for his ‘courageous decision’. Throughout all the questions, the Cabinet Secretary replied that the decision he had taken was ‘his and his alone’ and he said that he would ‘stand by it and face the consequences of it.’ With a full Parliamentary debate on the issue scheduled for next Wednesday, and revelations about communications between Libya and the UK still emerging in the press, we await to see what these consequences will be.