WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has strongly condemned Scotland's justice minister for freeing the only man convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, saying in a letter released Saturday that his action had made a "mockery" of justice and encouraged terrorists everywhere.
Mueller's letter came on the heels of criticism by President Obama and other administration officials over the decision Thursday to release former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, who was convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, 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 writes 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 Megrahi on what he called "compassionate" grounds, citing doctors' assessments that the Libyan is dying of prostate cancer and has only a few months to live. Megrahi, 57, was given a hero's welcome upon his return to Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
"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 American, including several dozen Syracuse University students.
Authorities concluded that the explosives were secretly planted in the cargo hold of the plane, which was headed from London to New York. After years of legal wrangling, Megrahi was tried and convicted in a special Scottish court set up in the Netherlands.
Libya spent years under United Nations 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 Megrahi has always insisted on his innocence and says he is a scapegoat.
Some legal experts have said that compassionate leave for dying inmates is common in Scotland. But others have sharply criticized Scotland and Britain as a whole, suggesting that politics -- including access to Libya's vast supplies of oil -- may have played a role in Megrahi's release.
The decision was made by the devolved government in Edinburgh, Scotland, run by the Scottish Nationalist Party, rather than the British government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London.
British officials took steps Saturday to quell the controversy, insisting they did not pressure Scottish justice officials on what to do as part of a deal to improve ties with Libya.
"The idea that the British government and the Libyan government would sit down and somehow barter over the freedom or the life of this Libyan prisoner and make it form part of some business deal . . . it's not only wrong, it's completely implausible and actually quite offensive," Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told reporters in London.
A Buckingham Palace spokesman said Saturday that the release was "entirely a matter for the Scottish government," the Associated Press reported.
In an interview published Saturday in the Times of London, Megrahi promised to release what he described as evidence that would exonerate him -- but offered no details.
"There was a miscarriage of justice," he was quoted as saying.
In the interview, Megrahi said he understood that the families of many Lockerbie victims were furious, but he appealed for understanding.
"They believe I'm guilty, which in reality I'm not," he told the Times. "One day the truth won't be hiding as it is now. We have an Arab saying: 'The truth never dies.' "