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Scotland: Lockerbie decision based on 'justice'

LONDON — The decision to release the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing was based on justice rather than commercial decisions, a senior Scottish politician said Monday.

The comments came after a British newspaper reported government officials allowed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi to be included in a prisoner transfer agreement because it was in the U.K.'s "overwhelming interests" as a major oil deal was being negotiated.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's deputy first minister, told the BBC she didn't know what agreements the British government had made, and said the decision of Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was based on legal principles.

"What I do know, and what I can state categorically ... is that these deals — if such deals existed — played no part whatsoever in the decision that Kenny MacAskill took to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds," Sturgeon said. "That was a decision taken entirely on justice grounds, and there were no influences relating to political or economic interests that played any part in that."

MacAskill told reporters in Scotland that his "decision was based not on any political, economic or diplomatic considerations."

Al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, is the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in Britain's worst terrorist attack

The Sunday Times reported that Jack Straw, Britain's justice minister, had originally tried to ensure that al-Megrahi was exempted from any prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. In December 2007 he wrote MacAskill saying "wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in the view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom" a standard agreement, with no exemptions, would be agreed. The oil deal, the Times reported, was concluded six weeks later.

Straw called any suggestion that there was a secret, backdoor deal "untrue" and called it "academic" because the Scottish government denied al-Megrahi's release under the prisoner transfer agreement, instead sending him to Tripoli on compassionate grounds.

A statement from Downing Street also denied a deal had been struck between Britain and Libya.

"There was no deal over (the) release of al-Megrahi nor could there ever be, since all decisions were for the Scottish, not U.K. government," the statement said. "The central assertion in this story is completely untrue and deeply misleading."