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Scottish Minister to Skip Senate Hearing on Lockerbie Bomber Release

Kenny MacAskill

FILE: Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, who authorized the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, has declined to testify at a U.S. Senate inquiry into the Libyan's release on compassionate grounds. (AP)

LONDON — The Scottish minister who authorized the release of the Lockerbie bomber said Friday he won't appear at a U.S. Senate hearing on the case because he has no new information to offer.

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has been invited to address the Senate committee on foreign relations, which is investigating whether oil giant BP lobbied Scotland to release Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi to smooth an oil exploration deal with Libya. Al-Megrahi was freed from jail last year on compassionate grounds.

"The U.S. Senate's invitation is primarily predicated on an investigation into what may or may not have happened with regard to a BP oil deal," he said. "The Scottish government was neither party nor privy to what was going on there, so we've made it quite clear that we have no information that we can provide regarding that."

BP and the British government have acknowledged they held discussions as Britain struck a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, allowing the movement of prisoners and suspects between the two countries.

But al-Megrahi, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, was released on compassionate grounds — not under the prisoner deal. BP insists it has not attempted to intervene in his case.

Al-Megrahi was convicted for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, most of them American and many from the New York area.

He served eight years of a life sentence in a Scottish prison, but was released last August after doctors assessed he had only three months to live. He is still alive almost a year later, leading many to question his original release.

Some Lockerbie victims' relatives in Britain have also previously questioned al-Megrahi's conviction, believing full facts in the case were not aired at his trial, conducted at a special Scottish court set up in the Netherlands after years of diplomatic maneuvering,

MacAskill said Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has sent a letter to the Senate committee setting out the terms under which Scotland made the decision to release the cancer-stricken al-Megrahi.

"But we don't know anything about a BP deal," he said. "We were not party to any of those discussions, so there's nothing I can usefully add."

Richard Baker, a Scottish opposition Labour Party lawmaker, said MacAskill should attend the hearing Thursday, and also meet families of al-Megrahi's victims.

"The U.S. senators want to know why al-Megrahi was released. Only one person can tell them that — that's Kenny MacAskill," he told the BBC. "It speaks volumes about the lack of confidence he has now in his own decision that he is running a mile from any scrutiny of it."

MacAskill said he was "not running scared from anything," and cooperating with the Senate inquiry.

The Scottish Prison Service's medical chief, Andrew Fraser, has also declined a request to attend the hearing in Washington on July 29.

Jack Straw, British justice secretary in the previous U.K. government under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said he had received an invitation to attend the Senate hearing and would make a final decision on whether to offer testimony later Friday.

But he said he could not offer any evidence on the decision to release al-Megrahi because it had been made by Scotland alone.

"I had nothing whatsoever to do with it," Straw said, explaining he learned of the release while he was away only by checking Internet news websites.

Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said the former British leader — who was instrumental in bringing Libya back into the international fold — had not received any request to attend.

BP PLC said CEO Tony Hayward has been asked to attend the hearing, but has not made a decision on whether to testify.