First Minister Alex Salmond has refused to give evidence at a hearing to be held by the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on the Megrahi release. Labour is accusing him of running scared but, unusually, I think Salmond is correct this time.
A quick recap: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 people died. There were numerous legal attempts to free him and many people still think that the conviction was unsafe.
Megrahi was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 2008. Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland’s SNP government, visited him in jail and soon afterwards released Megrahi on compassionate grounds, as he was reported to have only three months to live. He returned to Libya where he is still alive, almost a year later.
Over the past week claims have emerged in the US that oil giant BP lobbied for Megrahi’s freedom as part of an oil deal with Libya. The UK Government and the Scottish Government have both denied this, but there is anger among American politicians. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has written to both governments “encouraging the Scottish and British authorities to review the circumstances leading to the release.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has now decided to hold a hearing under the title “The Al-Megrahi Release: One Year On.” Their focus is likely to be BP, a company which is very unpopular in the US for obvious reasons.
Senator Robert Menendez, who will chair Thursday’s hearing, has called for MacAskill and Dr Andrew Fraser, who drew up the medical report on the Libyan, to attend and answer questions.
But First Minister Salmond has refused.
The Scottish Government has said it has nothing to add to an earlier statement that there were no discussions with BP. Salmond has provided written assurances to the Committee but has also clearly stated that his government is not responsible to the USA.
Alex Salmond’s opponents have attempted to make political capital from this issue. Richard Baker for Labour claims the SNP are “running scared” while Annabelle Goldie for the Tories has insisted they “must comply”. This seems like opportunism to me: would either have taken this view if they had been in government?
Salmond won’t be moved. He can be obstinate but on this issue he has a point. I don’t altogether agree with MacAskill’s decision or the manner in which it was taken, but it was his decision to take. And the Scottish Government answers to the Scottish electorate, not to the USA.
The Megrahi issue just will not go away. The SNP fears being caught in the middle of the BP issue, and for that political reason alone is right not to attend the hearing.
But the principle of accountability to the Scottish people is the most important issue here, and Salmond has called it absolutely correctly.