Friday, September 11, 2009
Megrahi release: Obama hits out at Brown
Published Date: 11 September 2009
By Tom Peterkin
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama last night expressed his "disappointment" at the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber during a 40-minute phone call with Gordon Brown.
In their first direct discussions on the matter, the two leaders "exchanged views" on the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Mr Brown made it clear the decision had been a matter for the Scottish Government.
Following their conversation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "The president expressed his disappointment over the Scottish Executive's decision to release convicted Pan Am 103 bomber al-Megrahi back to Libya."
When Megrahi returned to a hero's welcome in Libya last month, Mr Obama described the decision by the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, acting in his quasi-judicial role, to grant the bomber compassionate release as a "mistake".
But last night was the first time that he has expressed his disapproval to the Prime Minister in person.
Although it was a Scottish decision to free Megrahi, Mr Brown has come under fire for failing to indicate whether or not he supported the move.
The controversy has also been fanned by suggestions that the man, convicted of killing the 270 victims of Pan Am flight 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, was a pawn in trade negotiations between the UK and Libya.
Mr Obama and Mr Brown spoke by telephone to discuss preparations for a Group of 20 economic summit to be held in Pittsburgh later this month and also discussed the economic situation.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister admitted Lockerbie had been mentioned during the conversation.
The spokesman said: "It did come up, and the Prime Minister made it clear that it was a matter for the Scottish Government."
The spokesman declined to say whether Mr Obama or Mr Brown had raised the matter, but claimed that the call between the two men was "warm and substantive".
The release of Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal cancer, outraged the relatives of American victims of the atrocity, who are convinced that the former Libyan intelligence agent is guilty of the worst mass murder in British legal history.
Mr Obama's displeasure has led to speculation that Britain's handling of the case and its involvement in trade discussions with Libya could harm the "special relationship" between the UK and the United States.
Mr Brown's spokesman denied that was the case.
"The two leaders concluded that the special relationship was as strong as ever and that there continued to be good co-operation across the full global agenda," the No 10 spokesman said.
Earlier yesterday it emerged that the UK Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, will be questioned over the Megrahi's release by the Commons justice committee.
The cross-party group of MPs will question Mr Straw on the decision not to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya.
Last night the American relatives said they were "very pleased" that Mr Obama had made his feelings clear to Mr Brown and claimed that the special relationship was now under severe stress.
A backlash against the UK and Scotland has been seen across the US ever since Mr MacAskill took the decision to send Megrahi home.
The sight of Scottish saltires flying as Megrahi landed in Tripoli in front of cheering crowds was especially embarrassing to the UK and Scottish governments.
The Scottish Government has always insisted that the decision to release the bomber was the right one given that medical advice suggested Megrahi had just three months to live.
The American families have always said that his release went against an agreement struck between the US and Britain that said he should serve his entire life sentence in Scotland.
"I think the (US] administration's feeling is one of more than disappointment," said Frank Duggan, the Washington-based lawyer, who is president of Victims of Pan Am 103.
"I think the administration is really angry.
"People have been asking me 'what does this mean for the special relationship?' Well, I think it is in tatters."
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