7 Feb 2011

Labour Government aided Lockerbie bomber’s release

New documents published today show that the previous Labour government did “all it could” to help Libya secure the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Gordon Brown’s government always said that the decision to free the Libyan in August 2009 was made by the Scottish Executive.

Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons that Edinburgh had made a “very bad decision” and al-Megrahi should have been left to die in jail in Scotland after being convicted of the “biggest mass murder in British history”.

He said it was clear that the Labour government had “facilitated” the Libyans’ appeal for him to be freed.

Libyan threats

In a report, Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, says London did not pressurise Edinburgh over the issue, but did change its stance on al-Megrahi’s release once he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was prompted by Libyan threats that relations between the two countries would be damaged if al-Megrahi died in a Scottish prison.

No smoking gun in the Lockerbie documents, but distinctly more smoke, writes Political Editor Gary Gibbon. 

The SNP administration in Edinburgh was clearly looking to cut a deal on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya (which London wanted) and its own separate demands - putting an end to ex-offenders' claims against the Scottish government over slopping out and getting powers given to Scotland on air weapons.

On 19 December 2007, Jack Straw's private secretary writes a note of a conversation between Jack Straw, then Justice Secretary, and Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Justice Secretary.

It records that Kenny MacAskill "... made the point that the SNP would be seen to be rolling back on something 'deep in the Scottish pysche' and taking a political step back without securing a corresponding step forward". Read more

Sir Gus says: ” … once Mr Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 2008, HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) policy was based upon an assessment that UK interests would be damaged if Mr Megrahi were to die in a UK jail.

“The development of this view was prompted, following Mr Megrahi’s diagnosis of terminal illness, by the extremely high priority attached to Mr Megrahi’s return by the Libyans who had made clear that they would regard his death in Scottish custody as a death sentence and by actual and implicit threats made of severe ramifications for UK interests if Mr Megrahi were to die in prison in Scotland.

“Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi’s transfer under the PTA (Prisoner Transfer Agreement) or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK.”

Releasing Mr Megrahi was a very bad decision
Prime Minister David Cameron

Mr Cameron said: “I have not altered my view, which I expressed at the time, which is that I thought that releasing Mr Megrahi was a very bad decision.

“He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history and in my view he should have died in jail. It was a bad decision, and the last government should have condemned it rather than going along with it.

“Frankly, this tells us something that was not made clear at the time. It goes further than the account that the former Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary gave. We weren’t told about facilitating an appeal, about facilitating contact or game plans.”

Former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the Labour government had been “up to its neck in this shabby business” and shared responsibility for “one of the most foolish and shameful decisions of recent years”.

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in hospital in Tripoli (Reuters)

Scottish documents

The Scottish Government released its own documents which it said vindicated its argument that it had not done a deal with London.

There have been claims that Edinburgh agreed to release al-Megrahi in exchange for exemptions to a ruling that could have cost it £50m in compensation payments to criminals forced to ‘slop out’ in prison.

The Mail on Sunday reported an email exchange between two Whitehall special advisers in which it was said that Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill “wanted to do a deal” on the issue of ‘slopping out’.

The Scottish Government said Libya and ‘slopping out’ were separate issues. But Political Editor Gary Gibbon writes: “The SNP administration in Edinburgh was clearly looking to cut a deal on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya (which London wanted) and its own separate demands – putting an end to ex-offenders’ claims against the Scottish government over slopping out and getting powers given to Scotland on air weapons.”

Compassionate grounds

Al-Megahi was released on compassionate grounds because he had prostate cancer and was believed to have as little as three months to live.

He is still alive in Tripoli today, and although the previous government has always said that the decision was taken in Edinburgh, Mr Cameron promised US President Barack Obama that a review of the paperwork would be carried out.

He and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the issue at a security conference in Munich on Saturday.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said they had “strongly agreed that the release of the Lockerbie bomber had been a mistake”.

Tony Blair and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi signed a PTA in 2007. Britain has been accused of dropping its opposition to including al-Megrahi in the agreement because it wanted to secure an oil deal for BP in Libya.

Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 270 people.