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Cameron tells US Lockerbie release was 'wrong'

By Emma Thelwell

Updated on 20 July 2010

As David Cameron brands the release of the Lockerbie bomber "profoundly misguided", Channel 4 News correspondent Julian Rush says the prime minister should look to his right-hand man in the US for the truth about the "deal" with Libya.

David Cameron's US tour: PM to discuss BP's Lockerbie link (Image: Reuters)

Questions over BP's links to the early release of the Lockerbie bomber are threatening to eclipse the crux of the prime minister's talks with US president Barack Obama - the Afghan war.

Speaking on US radio station KCRW, Mr Cameron said: "Let us be clear it was not a decision taken by this government - it was taken by the Scottish government and I believe it was the wrong decision."

"Megrahi's release was profoundly misguided," he added. "I have been clear I believe he [al-Megrahi] should have died in jail."

If David Cameron really wants to know the truth about the deal with Libya, the man who knows everything is standing right beside him, writes Channel 4 News correspondent Julian Rush:

Right from the moment secret talks began between the British government and the Libyans, the name of one senior diplomat keeps cropping up.

In 2003 Britain and the US began secret talks to persuade Colonel Gaddafi to abandon his plans to acquire nuclear weapons.  Condoleezza Rice, then US National Security Advisor, headed the American team, Sir Nigel Sheinwald was Britain's man.

Those talks ended with Tony Blair famously meeting Colonel Gaddafi in his desert tent in March 2004 - with Sir Nigel at his side. Sir Nigel had been the diplomat who'd chaired a series of meetings in London with the Libyans to seal the deal.

Sir Nigel went on to draft the Memorandum of Understanding that was eventually signed in Tripoli in May 2007, in the so-called "deal in the desert". 

That MOU paved the way for the Prisoner Transfer Agreement at the centre of the allegations by US senators of BP lobbying. On the same day, Blair and Sir Nigel travelled to the Libyan city of Sirt to watch BP boss Tony Hayward sign a preliminary agreement for an oil and gas exploration deal worth some $900m.

Talk to Libyan ministers and diplomats and they'll speak of the "Nigel and Tony" double act.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald is now the British Ambassador in Washington.

The prime minister initially turned down requests for a meeting with the band of Senators seeking an inquiry into the case of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. Mr Cameron could not fit the meeting into the "very full schedule" of his first official Washington visit.

But last night, after arriving in the US for a two-day tour, a Downing Street spokesman said Mr Cameron had invited the four Senators to the British ambassador's residence tonight.

"The prime minister recognises the strength of feeling and knows how important it is to reassure the families of the victims," the spokesman said.

More from Channel 4 News on BP, Lockerbie and Libya:
- Rivals, white knights or Libya: who wants BP?
- Lockerbie timeline: al-Megrahi's trial and release
- Cameron: Megrahi release 'not a BP decision'
- Libya inquiry 'is kicking BP while it's down'

"We are happy to see them face-to-face and find time in the diary."

Despite agreeing that the Lockerbie case was entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive, Mr Cameron has pledged to "engage constructively" with a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on the release of Megrahi.

However, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill told the BBC that any questions being asked about the Lockerbie bomber are matters for the UK government. He said: "It was the British government that perhaps did a deal in the desert but that will be for them to state and for the senators to discover."

The Libyan national was convicted for the murder of 270 people in the Lockerbie bombing, but he was released from prison last year – after serving just eight years of a life sentence - on the grounds that he was suffering from a terminal illness.

Professor Robert Black, often credited as the architect of the joint US-UK trial at the neutral venue of Camp Zeist, Netherlands, told Channel 4 News he was "so disappointed that everyone is ignoring the real issue and focusing on the wholly inessential."

"The real issue," he said, "Is was an innocent man convicted?". Megrahi's case was investigated by the independent Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), which found on six grounds that there "may have been a miscarriage of justice" and refered the case back to the High Court "in the interests of of justice".

Professor Black, QC and Professor Emeritus of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh, was brought up in Lockerbie. 

He said it was a disgrace that the Americans were holding Mr Cameron to account, when it was the Scottish Executive that was responsible for the release of Megrahi under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTR).

BP targeted
Last week a group of Democratic senators, led by New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, wrote to John Kerry, chair of the senate foreign relations committee, calling for a further US government investigation into reports that BP aided the early release of Megrahi.

BP, under pressure in the US over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has confirmed it spoke to the previous Labour government about the "negative impact on UK commercial interests" caused by the slow progress on a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

However, the oil giant denies that it was in any way involved in the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Megrahi.

A witness list is expected to be drawn up and published this week, and may include the former justice secretary Jack Straw, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive, and the former prime minister Tony Blair.

Megrahi release 'wrong'
Mr Cameron has sought to calm fears that BP's tarnished relationship with the US will have an impact on the UK's.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the prime minister insisted there was "no daylight" between him and his US counterpart on Lockerbie.

"I have the deepest sympathies for the families of those killed in the bombing. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was found guilty of murdering 270 people. They weren't allowed to go home and die in their own bed with their relatives around them.

"I never saw the case for releasing him, and I think it was a very bad decision," Mr Cameron wrote.

Megrahi was the only person convicted for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a US Pan Am jumbo jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

He was released to a hero's welcome in Libya's capital Tripoli, after doctors ruled he had only three months to live. Eleven months on, Megrahi is still alive (see Jonathan Miller's video report, right).

This morning, Labour's David Miliband - who was foreign secretary at the time of Megrahi's release - said freeing the bomber was "clearly wrong", questioning the validity of the doctors' reports.

The Labour leadership contender told The Herald newspaper: "It was clearly wrong because it was done on the basis he had less than three months to live and it's now 11 months on." 

Last September, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Miliband said: "We did not want him to die in prison. We were not seeking his death in prison."

In a separate interview moments later Mr Cameron, then leader of the opposition, said that telling the Libyans this in private was a "catastrophic misjudgment".

Mr Cameron argued at the time that while cultivating relations with Libya was important, Megrahi should to have been allowed to die in jail because his crime was so serious.

Cameron: Megrahi release 'not a BP decision'
David Cameron has just told PBS radio in Washington that the Megrahi release was "not a BP decision" but "the decision of British ministers" (by which he means Scottish ministers), writes Channel 4 News' political editor Gary Gibbon.

He has revisited his initial decision to turn down a late request from four US senators to meet up and discuss the Lockerbie bomber’s release and BP’s influence on the Prisoner Transfer Agreeement.

His team worked out that the US senators had the capacity between them to become the story if they were snubbed, they still might even if they’re un-snubbed.

Afghanistan to dominate US talks
Mr Cameron brushed off the "seemingly endless preoccupation with the health of the special relationship". It is an anxiety, he wrote in the WSJ, that he has never understood.

"The US-UK relationship is simple: it's strong because it delivers for both of us".

Mr Cameron said the two were united by a "clear common agenda: succeeding in Afghanistan, securing economic growth and fighting protectionism".

The strategy for Afghanistan is likely to dominate the PM's meeting with Obama, as international leaders meet in the Afghan capital of Kabul for a key conference on the future of the country.

The prime minister is also set to meet vice-president Joe Biden, defeated Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain and senior figures in the US Congress - with a briefing on Afghanistan at the Pentagon expected tomorrow.

Mr Cameron said he was "unapologetically pro-America", in his article for the WSJ.

The US had proved itself a "formidable force for good". However, he warned he would be "hard-headed and realistic" in his relations with Washington.

He also noted there may be clashes between the two administrations over trade. "Promoting trade will be a huge priority for my government. It's the real stimulus our economies need, and Britain is open for business - especially to the US where our close ties already deliver jobs and prosperity for both our peoples," he wrote.

"Where there are potential issues between us we must work at them and deal with them."

US critics have expressed concern over the deep economic cuts in Britain and Europe, arguing that pulling back on stimulus too soon could tip the world economy back into a recession and cause strain on trade relations.

Afghanistan looms large over White House talks
When (not if) the US announces that it is drawing down from the surge, expected Summer 2011, the UK will worry that there will be pressure on other partners in the conflict to "run for the doors" - to satisfy internal demands in their countries, even if that doesn’t suit their immediate role, writes Channel 4 News political editor Gary Gibbon.

David Cameron, I hear, wants to make sure that the US announcements, when they come, are nuanced to avoid clamours for instant matching proportional drawdowns by others. That is high on his "issues to raise" list.

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