Middle East

Scotland’s Justice Secretary accused Libya of breaking a promise not to give freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi a hero’s welcome on his return home, PA reports.

 ”It is a matter of great regret that Mr Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner,” Kenny MacAskill told an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament. “It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie.”

UPDATE

The Libyan was greeted by crowds, some waving Scottish flags, when he landed at Tripoli on Thursday after being released on compassionate grounds by Mr MacAskill because he is dying from prostate cancer, adds Andrew Bolger, the FT’s Scotland correspondent.

“It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie,” said Mr MacAskill. “Assurances had been given by the Libyan government that any return would be dealt with in a low-key and sensitive fashion.”

Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader at Holyrood, said the Scottish National party government made “a wrong decision, in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences”.

Mr Gray said: “Does he understand how much his decision has angered the silent majority in Scotland? Does he understand how ashamed we were to see our flag flying to welcome a convicted bomber home?”

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, said: “I want to make clear that the decision to release Mr Megrahi was not done in the name of Scotland or in the name of this parliament or in my name.”

Ms Goldie asked why, if Mr Megrahi’s condition was so severe that keeping him in prison is inhumane, could he not have been released to a secure house or a hospice or a hospital in Scotland.

She said: “Is this SNP government seriously suggesting that our Scottish police who coped so admirably with security arrangements for G8 Leaders could not adequately protect Mr Megrahi?”

Gordon Brown kicked off the week by congratulating England’s cricket team for winning the Ashes while maintaining a dogged silence over the decision by the Scottish government to release the Lockerbie bomber.

The prime minister’s spokesman insisted it would be inappropriate for Mr Brown to comment on a matter that “was and remains a matter for the Scottish justice secretary”, in spite of a wave of anger over the decision in the US and UK.

That assertion has been greeted with scepticism in the media and Tory circles, where it has been noted that Mr Brown is usually free with his opinions on a range of less weighty issues, including cricket or reality television shows.

But Mr Brown’s reticence is unsurprising, given that the decision by Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice secretary, to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is perhaps the least worst outcome from the prime minister’s perspective.

Firstly the convicted Libyan bomber’s release on compassionate grounds will further warm relations between Tripoli and London (Colonel Gadaffi is unlikely to care a great deal about the constitutional niceties of Scottish devolution) and will improve trading links between the two countries.

Secondly the whole affair has backfired badly on Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, who now finds himself embroiled in a high-level dispute with Washington. Mr Brown cannot abide Mr Salmond, the SNP leader whose government is now under severe pressure.

If Mr Brown criticises the decision, he will annoy the Colonel; if he backs the SNP government in Scotland, he will infuriate the Americans. Silence is perhaps his best policy.

Nevertheless, he will face more tough questioning on his own personal view when he returns to Downing St on Tuesday for talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown today held breakfast talks with Muammar Gaddafi, touching on oil price volatility, improving bilateral relations between Britain and Libya and the sensitive issue of the Lockerbie bombing.

In their first head-to-head meeting, the colonel asked Mr Brown for help in the case of the dying former Libyan agent who is appealing against a life sentence for the 1988 attack.

The Scottish Appeal Court said this week the case would not be concluded until next year, raising concerns that 57-year-old Abdel Basset al-Megrahi – who is suffering from terminal prostate cancer – will die before the appeal finishes.

Mr Brown deftly passed the buck to his old adversary Alex Salmond, the Scotland first minister, pointing out that the Scottish National party leader was responsible for dealing with the issue.

“Everything is ready. I feel completely serene.”

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time prime minister and billionaire media mogul, is confident in the success of the G8 summit he is hosting this week in the quake-ravaged city of L’Aquila.

For Berlusconi, 72, it will be the third G8 summit he has chaired, following Naples in 1994 and Genoa eight years ago. No other leader of the rich countries’ club has such a distinction and this summit will be the biggest to date, bringing together a total of 39 heads of government and international institutions.

The summit venue is the college compound of the Finance Ministry police, a cross between a military barracks and university campus about two km outside L’Aquila which was devastated by an earthquake on April 6. Nearly 300 people in the city and surrounding villages were killed and about 60,000 are still homeless, more than 22,000 living in government-provided tents.

The three-day summit starts on Wednesday but world leaders have already started arriving in Rome. China’s Hu Jintao attended a business conference on Monday where 38 agreements reported to total $2bn were signed between Italian and Chinese companies, including car-maker Fiat and Generali, Italy’s insurance giant breaking into the Chinese pensions market.

Whether everything is really ready in L’Aquila is not clear. The media centre for some 3,500 reporters was to open on Monday but has been put back a day. But sidewalks have been covered in green carpeting and approach roads resurfaced. A blanket security presence will keep away any disgruntled tent people or anti-global protesters.

Almost daily aftershocks have added to the logistics nightmare of shifting the venue to L’Aquila from the original site at La Maddalena, a small island off Sardinia that had presented its own serious accommodation problems.

Italian media report that under Plan B, world leaders could be evacuated and flown to Rome in the event of another major tremor measuring more than 4.0 on the Richter scale, but only if the summit complex showed signs of damage. The April 6 quake measured 6.3. A tremor of 4.1 shook the area last Friday, sending people back out into the streets.

“There is no risk,” Mr Berlusconi told Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by his brother.  “Even if there was another shock, the guests would be completely safe.”

Mr Berlusconi is in serious need of a smooth and successful summit seen to produce concrete results. Communiques on climate change and food security could yield tangible progress. Italy is spearheading an effort, backed by Germany, that is intended to lead to a systematic working out of “global standards” for international business and finance. Ethics has become a buzz-word.

Iran could also come in for a tough verbal lashing although Mr Berlusconi has back-tracked since he earlier indicated he expected sanctions to be imposed, even though the G8 is not the right forum for such decisions.

At home and abroad, the prime minister’s standing has been seriously damaged by a series of scandals surrounding his private life that began when his wife, Veronica Lario, accused him of “frequenting minors” over his unclear relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model. Since then it has emerged that prosecutors are investigating whether a businessman in Bari suspected of corruption also procured prostitutes for the prime minister. Several women have gone public with their salacious tales.

Mr Berlusconi calls it all garbage and lies concocted by the left-wing “walking corpse” opposition. Despite repeated claims that he is completely unmoved by the media furore, his office has threatened to sue foreign newspapers, specifically those belonging to the Murdoch group, if they published photographs of his private parties.

Known for his attention to logistical detail, Mr Berlusconi has overseen preparations in L’Aquila led by Guido Bertolaso, the government’s Mr Fix-it who heads the civil protection agency which is also in charge of earthquake relief.

A basketball hoop has been specially installed for Barack Obama, US president, outside his accommodation block numbered P1.

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Leyla Boulton is an editor on the FT's main newsdesk
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