WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller has strongly condemned Scotland’s justice minister for freeing the only man convicted in the deadly Lockerbie bombing, saying in a letter released Saturday that his action has made a “mockery” of justice and encouraged terrorists everywhere.
Mueller’s letter came on the heels of criticism by President Barack Obama and other administration officials over the decision Thursday to release former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, 21 years after Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, most of them Americans.
But Mueller’s letter, written Friday to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, was unusual for its scorching criticism, particularly from a top U.S. law enforcement official with a reputation for diplomacy and public restraint.
“Over the years I have been a prosecutor, and recently as the director of the FBI, I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors, since only the prosecutor handling the case has all the facts and the law before him in reaching the appropriate decision,” Mueller wrote in his letter to MacAskill. “Your decision to release Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice in this case.
“I do so because I am familiar with the facts, and the law, having been the assistant attorney-general in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991. And I do so because I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of ‘compassion.’ ”
MacAskill decided to release al-Megrahi on what he called “compassionate” grounds, citing doctors’ assessments that the Libyan is dying from prostate cancer and has only a few months to live. Al-Megrahi, 57, was given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Tripoli.
“Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law,” Mueller wrote. “Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world.”
The subject is a sensitive one for Mueller and for the FBI, which spent years investigating the 1988 bombing. The FBI had joint jurisdiction with British authorities because 189 of the victims were Americans, including several dozen Syracuse University students.
Authorities concluded that the explosives were secretly planted in the cargo hold of the plane. After years of legal wrangling, al-Megrahi was tried and convicted in a special Scottish court set up in the Netherlands.
Libya spent years under U.N. and U.S. sanctions because of the Lockerbie bombing, and began normalizing relations with the West after accepting some official responsibility for the attack. But al-Megrahi has always insisted on his innocence and says he is a scapegoat.
On Saturday, British officials took steps to quell the controversy, insisting that they did not pressure Scottish justice officials on what to do as part of a deal with Libya.