Friday, August 28, 2009
US warned Scotland bomber could get hero's welcome
By DESMOND BUTLER and DEVLIN BARRETT, Associated Press Writers – 3 mins ago
WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder warned his Scottish counterpart in June that the man convicted of blowing U.S.-bound Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky could get a hero's welcome if allowed to return to Libya, according to the head of a group representing the families of victims.
Holder's warning to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill came nearly two months before the bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was released from a Scottish prison and greeted by a cheering crowd on his arrival in Libya last week.
The Scottish administration has faced unrelenting criticism from both the U.S. government and the families of American victims of the airline bombing since the decision to free the terminally ill al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The Scots said he was dying of prostate cancer.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi plans to visit the United States next month when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly. The trip is part of a long effort to rehabilitate his image and thaw relations between the West and Libya, but public anger over the Lockerbie release may drown out such efforts.
Notes prepared ahead of Holder's June 26 conversation with MacAskill were provided to The Associated Press by Frank Duggan, president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc. Duggan says a Justice Department official read him notes that Holder used during the conversation.
Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said he would not comment on the private conversation between the two officials. It was not clear whether the notes were a complete summary of Holder's message to MacAskill.
Duggan also provided notes of a July 9 teleconference between MacAskill and some victims' relatives, an emotional exchange in which family members told stories of their loved ones and implored MacAskill not to return al-Megrahi to Libya.
The telephone conversation between the U.S. and Scottish officials dealt with Scotland's consideration of transferring al-Megrahi to Libya under a prisoner transfer treaty that Britain and Libya concluded this year. MacAskill rejected that possibility before he granted al-Megrahi's request for release on health grounds. The application for compassionate release came after MacAskill's conversations with Holder and the family members.
According to the notes, Holder said the United States opposed al-Megrahi's transfer. Among a number of reasons given, Holder warned that Libya might pardon him, if not give him a hero's welcome upon his return.
Such a transfer would be perceived as a vindication of al-Megrahi's innocence before the Scottish process had run its course, the notes say.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, was quoted Friday in Scotland's Herald newspaper as saying, "The U.S. knew a long time ago that Mr. Megrahi would probably be released and asked us to keep the reception low-key." He claimed that most of the families of the victims in Scotland "have written us to say they are pro the decision and more than 20 percent of the American families say they have no objection."
A spokeswoman for MacAskill, Fiona Wilson, said her office had notes on the call with Holder, but would not discuss the conversations with Holder or the family members until the parties consented to MacAskill's request to release the documents summarizing them, which he hopes will help explain his decision.
Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of the Pan Am flight on Dec. 21, 1988, and sentenced to serve a minimum 27 years in prison. The airliner, which was carrying mostly American passengers to New York, was destroyed by a bomb in its cargo hold as it flew over Lockerbie. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died.
Although Libya accepted formal responsibility for the bombing, many there see al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing, as an innocent victim made a scapegoat by the West. Even as he left prison, al-Megrahi, protested his innocence.
In the July 9 conversation with family members, MacAskill said the Scottish authorities had asked the British government to include an exemption for the Lockerbie case when it negotiated the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, according to notes of the teleconference MacAskill's office provided to family members this week. He said that because the exemption was not included, he was bound to consider the possibility of a transfer.
MacAskill told the family members that "he would be making his decision on judicial grounds alone and that economic and political matters would not be part of the process."
Since al-Megrahi's release, Scottish and British authorities defended themselves against accusations that they sought to return the Libyan in order to curry favor with Libyan authorities dangling business deals. Libyan officials have said that they repeatedly raised al-Megrahi's release when negotiating commercial deals and had sought the prisoner transfer agreement specifically with al-Megrahi in mind.
Gadhafi's son told the Herald that "Lockerbie is history. The next step is fruitful and productive business with Edinburgh and London. Libya is a promising, rich market and so let's talk about the future."
In the teleconference, family members told of the two decades they have suffered since the deaths of their loved ones.
Duggan says MacAskill's office provided families no indication that he was considering releasing al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds and did not respond to correspondence following the teleconference.
Some family members who joined the call with MacAskill said they had believed that MacAskill opposed returning al-Megrahi to Libya and was sympathetic to their position. They say they now feel betrayed.
In an e-mail sent to MacAskill on Wednesday, Michelle Lipkin, who lost her father, Frank Ciulla, on the flight, said she left the teleconference "feeling optimistic."
"I had faith that the right decision would come, and I am stunned by the unfathomable decision you have made," she wrote.
Brian Flynn, whose brother John was killed, said he also thought MacAskill shared the families' opposition to returning al-Megrahi.
"Now it seems that MacAskill was just being patronizing," he said.
Associated Press writer Ben McConville in Edinburgh, Scotland, contributed to this report.
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