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British government: Megrahi release 'a mistake'

By Job Rabkin

Updated on 15 July 2010

In an attempt to ease a growing transatlantic row over BP's role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the British government says the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was "a mistake".

Lockerbie explosion (Credit: Getty)

In a statement issued in Washington, British Ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald says: "the new British government is clear that Megrahi's release was a mistake. The prime minister's official spokesman said today that: 'The prime minister at the time said that he believed the decision to release Megrahi was wrong, and that he understood the concerns that had been raised about it'." 

The statement comes just days before David Cameron is due to arrive in Washington for his first White House visit as British Prime Minister.

The ambassador again denied claims that the release took place so that BP could secure a lucrative oil deal in Libya.

"Claims in the press that Megrahi was released because of an oil deal involving BP, and that the medical evidence used by the Scottish Executive supporting his release was paid for by the Libyan government, are not true."

The claims were made in letters sent by four leading Democratic senators to both the British government and the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling for a British inquiry into whether pressure from BP led to Megrahi's release. But the government says it still believes further inquiries are not necessary. Yesterday Hillary Clinton said she had received the letter and was looking into it.

More on this story fropm Channel 4 News:
- US senators target BP over Lockerbie link
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- Was Megrahi freed over oil deals?
- MacAskill: why I released Lockerbie bomber

"Whilst we disagreed with the decision to release Megrahi, we have to respect the independence of the process. The inquiry by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament concluded in February that the Scottish Executive took this decision in good faith, on the basis of the medical evidence available to them at the time, and due process was followed.

"We have to accept that the release licence does not provide a mechanism for a person who has been released on compassionate grounds to be returned to prison if they have survived for longer than the period diagnosed by the relevant medical authorities."

The four Democratic senators - Charles Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, say they want BP to release any documents related to their lobbying of the British government over the affair.

"If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it just might be a corrupt deal between BP, the British government and Libya," Senator Schumer said yesterday.

BP admits it did lobby the government to clear a prisoner exchange agreement with Libya, but never mentioned Megrahi or pressed for his release. Ultimately Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds, and not part of a prisoner deal with Libya.

The claims were widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic on Wednesday and Thursday, particularly in America, where attacks on BP have grown ever more frequent as the oil spill in the Gulf has continued unabated.

Today relatives of those who died in the disaster said they were "not surprised" that BP's interests in drilling for oil in Libya may have played a part in Megrahi's release, as the Senators claim.

Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter on PanAm flight 103 says she has heard for years that BP had a strong interest in securing Megrahi's release, because it would help open up Libya to foreign investment.

"There's no question in my mind that BP was involved. The British government was very much influenced by the oil companies, and it's no coincidence that soon after the negotiations BP signed this enormously good deal.

"This was really a deal for business interests. Western governments seem to be run by one thing now - the great God money."

She claims that Khaddafi's son, Salif, has said publicly that it's perfectly natural that Al-Megrahi negotiators were linked to business interests, and people should not be surprised by it."

Many of the Lockerbie relatives welcome the calls for an investigation, and are urging the State Department to take action. But State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said it was not clear what action the State Department could take if any against the Scottish government.

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