Scottish lawmakers tore into their goverment Monday at an emergency session on the early release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, as the ruling party escaped a no-confidence vote that could have brought the reeling government down.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill received a ceaseless barrage of furious questions over his decision to free al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people.
Al-Megrahi was released last week on compassionate grounds because he is dying of prostate cancer and received a hero's welcome Thursday in his native Libya, where he was embraced by jubilant crowds and the country's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Top U.S. officials have continued to express their disappointment and disgust with the decision to send al-Megrahi packing, as the families of those aboard the doomed Pan Am flight expressed outrage at the show of compassion for a man who never repented for his crime.
A crowd hissed along from the packed public section during the emergency debate Monday in Edinburgh, as MacAskill was once again called on to defend freeing the convicted bomber after only eight years of his life sentence. Al-Megrahi served just 11 days in prison for each of the 270 victims of the bombing.
Some Scottish lawmakers hoped to distance themselves from the decision by Scotland's nationalist administration, which advocates full independence from Britain.
"Today is about showing the world that Kenny MacAskill did not speak for Scotland in making this decision," said Richard Baker, the Labour Party's Scottish justice spokesman. An expected no-confidence vote was tabled before the debate Monday.
MacAskill reiterated his view that the government had to uphold "Scottish values" even in the face of al-Megrahi's terror, but lawmakers roiled at the suggestion that there were no other defensible options open to him.
"I do not believe you hold a monopoly on values," said member of the Scottish Parliament Karen Gillon.
"The suggestion that those who disagree with (the decision to free Megrahi) lack compassion is deeply offensive," said member of the Scottish Parliament Margaret Curran.
Parliamentarians present pressed MacAskill for details of his discussions and briefings before al-Megrahi's release, which he generally deflected, and asked whether the 57-year-old could have been transferred to a hospice in Scotland instead.
The justice secretary said he could not have remanded the ailing terrorist to the care of Scottish doctors, which wuold unwillingly put them at risk and in the spotlight. "I was not willing to foist Mr. Megrahi upon any hospice in Scotland," he said.
Though he acknowledged that the release was "a global issue," but stressed the decision to free al-Megrahi had been his alone. He regretted that assurances of a low-key arrival in Libya had been breached by Libyan authorities. The sight of cheerings crowds on the ground have further set off critics.
In a strongly worded letter to the Scottish government, FBI director Robert Mueller said al-Megrahi's release gave comfort to terrorists, while Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said releasing the bomber was "obviously a political decision."
MacAskill has said earlier that he followed all the correct procedures under Scottish law and was not influenced by political considerations, solely by the fact that al-Megrahi had just three months to live, according to doctors' reports.
Including al-Megrahi, 24 prisoners have been freed on compassionate grounds in Scotland over the last decade. Another seven applications were turned down because the medical evidence did not support the claim.
But some critics have accused authorities of approving the release to boost business ties between Britain and Libya, which has vast oil reserves. Such suspicions were heightened after Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi thanked Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth II for "encouraging" the Scottish government to free al-Megrahi.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the suggestion there had been a deal was "completely implausible and actually quite offensive."
On Monday, a spokesman for Brown said al-Megrahi's release was "a uniquely sensitive and difficult decision" but he denied allegations it pleased terrorists.
"This was a decision taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary in accordance with the laws of Scotland," he said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "I don't see that anyone can argue that this gives succor."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.