iOS app Android app More

UK Did Not Want To Hurt Ties With Libya: Official Documents

PAISLEY DODDS   09/ 1/09 07:28 PM ET   AP

Britain Brown Lockerbie

LONDON — In the years leading up to Scotland's release of the Lockerbie bomber, Britain repeatedly stressed the importance of growing UK-Libyan ties and said it did not want Abdel Baset al-Megrahi to die in prison, according to confidential documents released by the British and Scottish governments on Tuesday.

The British government released the documents in an attempt to quell speculation that it pushed al-Megrahi's release to boost economic cooperation with Libya. But the documents will likely fan more resentment in the United States, where al-Megrahi's release has been vehemently opposed.

Al-Megrahi, 57, was convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people – many of whom were American college students. Scotland freed him on compassionate grounds Aug. 20 after doctors said he had three months to live due to advanced prostate cancer.

Britain has regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are responsible for local issues but retains power over foreign policy.

"You ask what I mean by 'national interests,'" Britain's Justice Secretary Jack Straw said in a letter last year to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

"Developing a strong relationship with Libya, and helping it to reintegrate into the international community, is good for the U.K. Libya is one of only two countries to have ever voluntarily and transparently dismantled its weapons of mass destruction program. Having sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, it is now an important partner in the fight against terrorism."

Straw had originally written to Scottish authorities a year before saying there might be a way to exclude al-Megrahi from a potential prisoner transfer agreement – an exclusion that could have appeased the Americans and eliminated one way that al-Megrahi could have been freed.

It was unclear what prompted Straw to change his mind.

"I do not believe that it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion into the PTA (prisoner transfer agreement)," Straw wrote in the 2008 letter to Salmond.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Richard Kolko responded to the document disclosure, saying that his department had "received assurances in the 1990's that al-Megrahi's full sentence would be served in Scotland."

The statement seemed to contradict other documents, including one from Britain's Foreign Office that said there was no categorical commitment given to the United States to keep al-Megrahi jailed.

In an Aug. 3, 2009, letter, Ivan Lewis, Britain's Middle East minister, told Scottish Attorney General Kenny MacAskill that "while the U.S. pressed the U.K. to provide a definitive commitment on the future imprisonment" of al-Megrahi, Britain "declined to do this on the grounds that it did not wish to bind the hands of future governments."

Lewis said he hoped Scotland would feel able to consider Megrahi's application for a return to Libya, adding that at the time of al-Megrahi's 2001 conviction, ministers could "not rule out the possibility that our relations with Libya may one day change, as indeed they have."

In a second letter, sent to Scottish government official George Burgess in July, the Foreign Office told him Britain "did not give the U.S. an absolute commitment" to keep al-Megrahi jailed in Scotland.

The exchanges also raise questions on whether Britain warned Scotland of a possible diplomatic fallout with the United States should al-Megrahi be released.

In another disclosed exchange, Abdulati Alobidi, Libya's Minister for Europe, said junior Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell visited Tripoli in February and that Rammell told him that Britain did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison – another statement that would seem to contradict the Justice Department's contention that Britain had offered assurances that al-Megrahi would stay in Scotland.

"The fix has been in for a while," said Bob Monetti, whose 20-year-old brother Richard from Cherry Hill, N.J. was among those killed. "The U.K. has put incredible pressure on Scotland to do this thing, and they finally caved in."

As the more than a dozen documents dated between 2007 and 2009 were released, Libya marked the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Col. Moammar Gadhafi to power – an extravaganza meant to celebrate the return of the former pariah state into the international fold after terrorism.

British talk shows late Tuesday buzzed with suggestions that al-Megrahi's release was no coincidence ahead of Gadhafi's lavish celebrations.

The disclosures follow claims in the British media that the British government struck a deal with Libyan authorities to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement because that was in Britain's best interests at a time when a major oil deal was being negotiated.

Britain has growing economic interests in Libya – from oil exploration to financial services. Last year, British imports from Libya topped some 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion).

But the British government has repeatedly denied its role in the release and said there was no pressing commercial deal.

Anger has been percolating on both sides of the Atlantic since al-Megrahi flew home to a hero's welcome in Libya.

The families of some American victims have said they were disgusted by the bomber's release, which was also sharply criticized by President Barack Obama, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some British families of Lockerbie victims reacted with fury, but for different reasons than American families. Pamela Dix from Surrey in southeast England, who lost her brother Peter, said she was surprised and frustrated by the letters.

"I fully support moves to bring Libya back into the international fold, but not at the expense of the truth in this case," she said.

Releasing prisoners on compassionate grounds is a regular feature of Scottish justice for dying inmates.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the decision to free al-Megrahi was Scotland's. He also said he told Gadhafi at the Group of Eight meetings in Italy in July that his administration had no role in the matter.

"I made it absolutely clear to him then that this was not a decision, the future and fate of Mr. al-Megrahi, that we as the United Kingdom could take," the Financial Times quoted Brown as saying.

Downing Street spokesman Simon Lewis said Brown would speak with Obama about the bomber's release in the coming days.

Brown's office said not all correspondence between Libya and Britain would be released – only documents deemed to be relevant.

___

Associated Press writers David Stringer in London, Ben McConville in Edinburgh, Scotland, Devlin Barret in Washington, Alfred De Montesquiou in Tripoli, Libya, and Geoff Mulvihill also contributed to this report.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST WORLD

Filed by Ami Cholia  |