UK denies pressuring Scotland into Lockerbie release

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Since the August 20 release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who was convicted of planting a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103, there has been growing controversy surrounding the events which led to his release. Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in-flight in 1988 as the aircraft flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and eleven more on the ground. Al Megrahi is the only person to have been convicted of the bombing.

Kenny MacAskill
Image: Scottish Government.

In recent years, the British government has negotiated oil development deals with Libya. As part of the negotiations, at least three UK ministers traveled to Libya in the months leading up to Al Megrahi's release.

Leaked letters from UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw to his Scottish counterpart, Kenny MacAskill, stated that it was in the "overwhelming national interests" of the UK to include Al Megrahi in prisoner transfer agreements which were part of the oil trade deals. These letters have lead to widespread speculation that the British government influenced the Scottish decision to release Al Megrahi.

Al Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds as he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, this diagnosis was called into question as The Times revealed that the health director of the Scottish Prison Service, Dr. Andrew Fraser, relied on the advice of a general practitioner instead of an oncologist, when issuing his recommendation for release.

When Al Megrahi returned to Libyan soil, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi thanked Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth for his release.

Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, the son of Muammar al-Gaddafi, has stated that during the prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) phase the trade negotiations, the Al Megrahi case was not specifically named, yet it was implied.

Jack Straw

"The fight to get the [prisoner transfer] agreement lasted a long time and was very political, but I want to make clear that we didn't mention Mr Megrahi. At all times we talked about the PTA. It was obvious we were talking about him. We all knew that was what we were talking about," he said.

In Scotland, the release of Al Megrahi has caused significant debate. A poll conducted for the BBC by ICM Research found that 60% of Scots thought the Scottish Government was wrong to allow the release. 68% believe the decision was made fore reasons that did not pertain to Al Megrahi's health.

Muammar al-Gaddafi
Image: Agência Brasil.

"No one I think seriously believes we made any other decision except for the right reasons," First Minister Alex Salmond said on Wednesday. "I think it was the right decision. I also absolutely know it was for the right reasons."

"We didn't think that the Lockerbie decision should be linked to trade or oil decisions by anyone who looked at the coincidence that the prisoner transfer agreement was being negotiated at the same time as commercial contracts," Salmon also stated.

The UK Prime Minister's office stated Monday that, "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 central assertion in this story is completely untrue and deeply misleading," Downing Street added.

Correspondence released on Tuesday by the UK government shows that Abdulati Alobidi, the Libyan minister to Europe warned of "catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK," if Al Megrahi were to die in prison in Scotland.

When Salmond asked Straw what the national interests of the UK were, Jack Straw replied, "Having sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, it [Libya] is now an important partner in the fight against terrorism." Libya approved a large oil exploration contract to BP within days of the letter.

Libyan officials have said that since al-Megrahi's return to Libya, his health has deteriorated. He was not part of the 40th anniversary celebrations for Gaddafi's coup d'état held on Tuesday.