Scotland's Parliament voted Wednesday to reject the government's decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from his life sentence and return him to his native Libya. The vote symbolized widespread disdain for the terrorist's release, but it was not an attempt to topple the government.
By a 73-50 vote, the Scottish Parliament rejected a government bid to gain an endorsement of its decision to free al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence who was convicted in the 1988 attack on a Pan Am airliner that killed 270 people — mostly Americans.
The government had asked the parliament to endorse the decision as "consistent with the principles of Scottish justice." But the legislators backed an opposition amendment condemning Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision as mishandled — and saying they disagreed with the government's action.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced accuations of "double-dealing" after confidential documents were released revealing that Libya was told Brown wanted the Lockerbie bomber to die a free man.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband defended the report in a BBC interview and confirmed details that emerged in the documents but adamantly denied that the government took any active steps to secure convicted bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's release.
"We did not want him to die in prison, no, we weren't seeking his death in prison," Miliband said.
Documents released by the Scottish government on Tuesday included the minutes of a meeting with Libya earlier this year during which it was stated that Bill Rammell, then a foreign office minister, told Tripoli that neither the prime minister nor Miliband "would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of the Scottish Ministers."
But Brown insisted Wednesday that he didn't strike any deal with Libya over the return of al-Megrahi, who was convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people — mostly Americans.
"There was no conspiracy, no cover up, no double dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers," he said.
The British government released the documents Tuesday in an attempt to quell speculation that it had pushed al-Megrahi's release to boost economic cooperation with Libya. But the documents fanned more resentment in the U.S., where al-Megrahi's release was vehemently opposed.
The government had previously refused to be drawn into the issue, saying it was up to the government in Scotland to decide on justice issues.
Al-Megrahi, 57, was the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Scotland freed him on compassionate grounds Aug. 20 after doctors said he had terminal cancer.
Opposition leader David Cameron immediately seized upon Miliband's remarks, demanding an investigation into the controversy.
"The prime minister and the government stand accused of double-dealing — saying one thing to the Libyans in private, refusing to express an opinion to the British public and indicating something else to the Americans," Cameron said. "That is why we need an inquiry to clear this matter up."
Britain has regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are responsible for local issues but retains power over foreign policy.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the decision to free al-Megrahi was Scotland's. He will now face increased pressure to say how he viewed Scotland's decision — a stand he was been reluctant to take because of domestic political pressure to keep regional issues separate from the national ones.
Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in 2001 with a minimum term of 27 years. Releasing prisoners on compassionate grounds is a regular feature of Scottish justice for dying inmates.
Relatives of al-Megrahi told the Associated Press Wednesday that he was rushed to an intensive care unit after his condition worsened.
"He is in a bad way. He is unable to speak to anyone," a Libyan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Anger has been percolating on both sides of the Atlantic since al-Megrahi flew home to a hero's welcome in Libya.
The families of some American victims have said they were disgusted by the bomber's release, which was also sharply criticized by President Barack Obama, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Richard Kolko said Tuesday that his department had "received assurances in the 1990s that al-Megrahi's full sentence would be served in Scotland."
The American statement seemed to contradict some of the released documents, including one from Britain's Foreign Office that said there was no categorical commitment given to the United States to keep al-Megrahi jailed.
During debate in the Scottish parliament Wednesday, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he had received "conflicting advice" from officials in London on what assurances Britain had given Libya and the United States.
"I still do not know the exact nature of the pretrial discussions or what may have been agreed between the Libyan and U.K. or any other governments," he said.
American victims' families reacted with fury to the disclosures.
"The fix has been in for a while," said Bob Monetti, whose 20-year-old brother Richard from Cherry Hill, N.J. was among those killed. "The U.K. has put incredible pressure on Scotland to do this thing, and they finally caved in."
As the more than a dozen documents dated between 2007 and 2009 were released, Libya marked the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi to power — an extravaganza meant to celebrate the return of the former pariah state into the international fold after terrorism.
The disclosures followed claims in the British media that the British government struck a deal with Libyan authorities to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement because that was in Britain's best interests as a major oil deal was being negotiated.
Britain has growing economic interests in Libya — from oil exploration to financial services. Last year, British imports from Libya topped some $1.6 billion.
But the British government has repeatedly denied its role in the release and said there was no pressing commercial deal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.