London: The British government allowed the Lockerbie bomber to be covered by a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya because that was in the “overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom” as a major oil deal was being negotiated, a newspaper reported on Sunday.
The Sunday Times, citing leaked correspondence between Justice Secretary Jack Straw and his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill, said the decision was made as “wider negotiations” with the government of Libya continued.
On Sunday, Straw dismissed as “simply untrue” any suggestion that economic considerations had an effect on the decision to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.
“The suggestion that at any stage there was some kind of backdoor deal done over (al-Megrahi’s) transfer because of trade is simply untrue,” Straw said in an interview with the BBC.
Al-Megrahi’s request to serve out his life sentence in Libya was later denied by MacAskill, but he released the Libyan on compassionate grounds because the 57-year-old is terminally ill. Al-Megrahi returned to Libya earlier this month.
The Sunday Times reported that Straw had originally tried to keep al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the attack on Pan Am Flight 103, from being included in the agreement.
But five months later, the newspaper said, as a multibillion-pound deal between oil company BP and Libya stalled, Straw wrote MacAskill to say that there would be no exceptions.
“The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in the view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance (the prisoner transfer agreement) should be in the standard form and not mention any individual,” the paper quoted Straw as writing in December 2007. It said the oil deal was ratified six weeks later.
In a statement released on Sunday, Straw said it had always been made clear during negotiations with the Libyans that Scotland would have a right to veto any application under a prisoner transfer agreement—including that of al-Megrahi.
“The negotiations over a prisoner transfer agreement were part of a wider agreement for the normalisation of relations with Libya as part of bringing them into the international community,” Straw said, adding that the agreement’s terms were “academic,” as al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds rather than under the prisoner transfer agreement.
The statement did not comment on the authenticity of the letters published by The Sunday Times.
According to The Economist magazine, Britain has significant economic interests in Libya. Last year, British imports topped 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion), and this year both imports and exports have been rising steadily.
The decision to release al-Megrahi sparked outrage in the United States, as most of the 270 people killed in the December 1988 attack were US citizens. Both President Barack Obama and FBI director Robert Mueller criticised the move, and scenes of jubilation in Libya at al-Megrahi’s arrival were condemned on both sides of the Atlantic.
US families had also opposed any move to allow al-Megrahi to serve his sentence in Libya.
In an interview with a British newspaper, al-Megrahi—who has maintained his innocence—said he hoped there would be a public inquiry into the attack.
“In my view, it is unfair to the victims’ families that this has not been heard,” he told Glasgow’s The Herald newspaper. “It would help them to know the truth. The truth never dies. If the UK guaranteed it, I would be very supportive.”
Scottish first minister Alex Salmond told the BBC his administration had opposed the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, and that “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.”
BP spokesman David Nicholas said the company “is not a party to government agreements. We have no role in the discussions, nor have we been involved in any of the discussions in any way, shape or form.”
The British government has insisted it had no role in the decision to send al-Megrahi back to Libya. Scotland has wide autonomy over internal affairs, although London is still responsible for foreign affairs and defense.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he told Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi “that we had no role in making the decision about (al-Megrahi’s) future. Because it was a quasi-judicial matter, because it was a matter legislated for by the Scottish Parliament and not by us, it was a matter over which we could not interfere and had no control over the final outcome.”