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MPs to Probe Megrahi Link to Libya Oil Deal Print E-mail

By Eddie Barnes
Scotsman.com
August 31, 2009

ImageA PARLIAMENTARY inquiry is set to investigate claims that Britain made the Lockerbie bomber eligible for a return to his homeland to smooth multi-billion-pound business deals with Libya.

The foreign affairs select committee will meet next month to consider the affair after leaked letters yesterday confirmed that UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw decided two years ago that it was in the UK's "overwhelming interests" not to exclude Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement.

A few weeks after the treaty was signed, BP finalised a huge exploration deal in Libya for oil and gas.

Mr Straw's decision meant that Libya was able to request that the Scottish Government return the bomber under the transfer scheme – a request they subsequently refused.

The Scottish Government had asked for Megrahi to be considered separate from the deal, first raised by Tony Blair with Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in the so-called "deal in the desert".

However, in a letter to his Scottish counterpart, Kenny MacAskill, in December 2007, Mr Straw said that, with "wider negotiations" with Libya at a "critical stage", he had decided to accept Libyan requests for Megrahi to be part of the agreement.

First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday denied that Mr Straw's actions had anything to do with Mr MacAskill's release of the convicted terrorist.

Mr Straw also hit out at the claims last night, describing the suggestion he had bargained Megrahi's release for trade as "absurd". He pointed out that it had always been made clear to the Libyans that it was the Scottish Government, not London, which had the final say on the matter.

He said that, in 2003, an agreement was struck to allow international atomic energy inspectors to supervise the dismantling of Libya's secret nuclear weapons programme.

"And, yes, as part of that there would be gradual normalisation of relations with Libya, with the West as a whole, not just with the United Kingdom," he said.

The prisoner transfer agreement, he said, was part of that new relationship.

Mr Straw added: "But was there a deal? A covert, secret deal ever struck with the Libyans to release Megrahi in return for oil? No, there was not, and there is no evidence whatsoever because it is untrue."

Megrahi, who has advanced prostate cancer, was freed by Mr MacAskill two weeks ago, but not under the prison transfer agreement. Instead, Scottish ministers agreed to free him for compassionate reasons. The first TV images of him in his hospital bed were broadcast last night. He appeared to be too sick to answer questions.

The fresh row over the Megrahi release renews pressure on the UK government. Gordon Brown has refused to say whether he approved of the release of the Lockerbie bomber, who was convicted of the murder of 270 people.

In the summer of 2007, the Scottish Government urged Mr Straw to make Megrahi exempt from any prison transfer agreement. Despite having a veto over his release, SNP ministers wanted his case dealt with entirely separately. Mr Straw said he would seek to do so by stipulating that any prisoners convicted before a specified date would not be considered for transfer.

However, five months later, he wrote to Mr MacAskill saying he had been unsuccessful: "The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in 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."

Mr Straw said last night that he had supported the Scottish Government's request that Megrahi be "carved out" of the prison transfer agreement, but said that the Libyans had then told him it was unacceptable.

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell, a member of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, warned last night that the revelations had "muddied the waters" over exactly what was said to the Libyans.

He said: "We need a comprehensive statement about the extent to which Megrahi's fate may have featured in any trade negotiations between the United Kingdom and Libya. If the government fails to provide a full account of its conduct, it will simply add to speculation."

Shadow foreign affairs minister David Lidington added: "The government's secrecy and ambivalence is having a corrosive effect on international relations and public trust in ministers."

However, UK officials angrily hit back against any suggestion of a prisoner-for-oil deal yesterday – pointing out that such a deal relied on the Labour government being able to win the agreement of Mr Salmond.

One senior Whitehall source said: "The notion that Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair made a crude deal with Col Gaddafi that relied on them delivering the agreement of Alex Salmond is not just nonsense, it is nonsense on stilts."

The source added: "Tony Blair couldn't stand Alex Salmond. He refused to congratulate him on his election victory. How on earth could they conspire on an oil-for-terrorists deal?"

Mr Salmond yesterday also reiterated that he had always been opposed to release under the prison transfer agreement. He said: "We didn't think that the Lockerbie decision should be linked to trade or oil decisions."

With a parliamentary investigation now on the cards, Megrahi himself said yesterday that he favoured a full public inquiry into the atrocity.

A public inquiry, held under a judge, would have the power to demand all documentation in the case.

Jim Swire, whose daughter died in the bombing, said that people should stop "mulling over" the decision to free Megrahi. Dr Swire, who believes that Megrahi is innocent, called on the authorities in Scotland to "take responsibility" for reviewing the conviction.

TIMELINE

August, 2002: First official contact as UK foreign office minister Mike O'Brien meets Colonel Muammar al-Gadaffi in Libya – the first British ministerial trip to the country since the 1984 shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London.

25 March, 2004: Prime Minister Tony Blair goes to Libya for historic meeting in the desert with Col Gadaffi. Mr Blair indicates that the talks opened new prospects of co-operation. First of many meetings over the next three years involving British, Libyan and oil company officials.

29 May, 2007: BP announces a £545 million deal to prospect for oil in Libya. It is unratified.

30 May, 2007: Mr Blair returns to Libya for meeting with Col Gadaffi at which they signed a "memorandum of understanding" covering defence, tourism, economic and financial development and health – all areas where British business could benefit.

4 November 2007: The Duke of York makes his first official trip to Libya, in part to negotiate opening a Libyan sovereign fund office in London.

26 July, 2007: Jack Straw, recently appointed Justice Secretary, sends a letter to Kenny MacAskill, in which he said he would exclude Megrahi from any prisoner transfer scheme between Britain and Libya.

19 December, 2007: Mr Straw sends a second letter to Mr MacAskill stating that on the grounds of "the overwhelming interests for the UK" he would now not resist the inclusion of Megrahi in any prisoner transfer scheme.

29 January, 2008: BP deal with Libya is ratified.

1 May, 2009: Prisoner transfer agreement finalised, leading to application from Libya for Megrahi to be moved.

20 August, 2009: Megrahi released by Scottish Government on compassionate grounds.

 

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