EDINBURGH - Scotland's justice secretary Monday defended his decision to free the Lockerbie bomber on humanitarian grounds in the face of severe criticism from the United States government and relatives of U.S. victims.
Addressing an emergency meeting of the Scottish parliament, Kenny MacAskill rejected suggestions from opponents that he had bowed to political or economic pressure.
But MacAskill, who freed Abdel Basset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer, criticized Libya for the celebrations that greeted his return to Tripoli.
A decision had to be made, MacAskill told the packed chamber in the Scottish capital. It was based on the law of Scotland, and the values I believe we seek to uphold. It was not based on political, diplomatic or economic considerations.
Relatives of U.S. victims have strongly condemned the Scottish government over its decision to release Megrahi, 57, the only person convicted of the bombing of the Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.
The British government has denied wanting Megrahi to be freed to bolster diplomatic and commercial ties with Libya, which has the biggest oil reserves in Africa. Oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell have signed big exploration deals with Libya.
Critics say the British government has allowed the Scottish authorities, which have devolved powers and a separate legal system, to take the blame for the release and has chosen not to make its own position clear.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose ruling Labor Party lost to the Scottish National Party in elections in Scotland in 2007, has made no comment on the decision. His spokesman said it was a matter for the devolved Scottish government.
Megrahi flew home from Scotland Thursday and was greeted in the Libyan capital by more than 1,000 people cheering and waving Libyan and Scottish flags.
Many of the Lockerbie victims were Americans. Critics of the Scottish decision have set up a website urging Americans to boycott Scotland. U.S. tourists are the leading overseas visitors to Scotland by number and spend about 257 million pounds ($424 million) a year, more than any other nationality.
The White House underscored its anger Monday over the welcome given to Megrahi, but stopped short of saying its relationship with Tripoli had changed.
The President's view is that...it was disgusting to see a convicted terrorist welcomed the way that he was in Libya, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told a briefing in Massachusetts, where Barack Obama is on holiday.
But in terms of our relationship, we will just work on a case-by-case basis on whatever is appropriate going forward.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington had warned Libyan officials if they continue to lionize him in a public fashion...these kinds of public demonstrations can only have a profoundly negative effect on our relationship.
He told reporters in Washington it was early to say if the United States was considering concrete steps to punish Libya.
The United States lifted its major economic sanctions against Libya after Tripoli's decision in 2003 to give up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its agreement to pay compensation for victims of the Lockerbie bombing.
MacAskill said he had sought a promise from Libya that it would handle Megrahi's return in a sensitive way.
It is a matter of great regret that Mr al-Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner, he said.
Iain Gray, leader of the opposition Scottish Labor Party, said MacAskill had mishandled this whole affair from start to finish, angering people at home and abroad.