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U.K. Questions Release Of Lockerbie Bomber

President Obama meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House on Tuesday. The British leader resisted pressure to investigate the release of the Lockerbie bomber.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House on Tuesday. The British leader resisted pressure to investigate the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

British Prime Minister David Cameron resisted pressure in Washington this week to investigate possible links between energy giant BP and last year's release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. But in the U.K., the U.S. questioning of Cameron has reopened discussion about why and how the Libyan was freed.

The allegation is that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, was released under pressure from BP, which was about to seal a drilling deal with Libya. A counter-allegation swiftly came from Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, who said the U.S. senators calling for an investigation are grandstanding.

"BP has denied it, the British government has denied it, the Libyans have denied it," he said. "If there is any evidence, of course, that would change things. But so far there isn't. All we have are unsupported allegations by some American politicians."

Prisoner-Transfer Agreement

In fact, just about all of the parties to the Megrahi affair are now pointing accusing fingers at one another. To understand why, you have to understand that Megrahi had not one, but two possible doors out of that Scottish prison cell.

Here's what everyone agrees on: About six years into Megrahi's 27-year prison term, Britain struck a prisoner-transfer agreement with Libya. BP has made no secret of the fact that it urged the British government to move swiftly, on the grounds that British commercial interests might have been harmed by a delay. But the energy giant has denied specifically lobbying to release Megrahi.

Many relatives of Lockerbie victims -– as well as some in the Scottish government -– initially believed Megrahi was excluded from the prisoner-transfer agreement. In fact, then-Home Secretary Jack Straw later acknowledged that he had "caved in to the Libyans" to reward them for giving up their nuclear weapons program.

Release On Compassionate Grounds

But here's the thing: Megrahi was a Scottish prisoner, and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill rejected the prisoner-transfer agreement.

"The PTA did seem to us to be tainted, and it was for that reason, on the basis of requests from America, both government and victims, that we rejected the application from the Libyan government to return al-Megrahi," MacAskill said.

MacAskill also insists that BP never approached him or anyone else in the Scottish government about the case. He says his decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was virtually automatic under Scottish law, when two doctors have certified that a prisoner has less than three months to live.

Yet nearly one year on, the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, is still very much alive, and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has been forced to deny yet again that there was something questionable about Megrahi's release.

"I'm not a doctor. But I think it's entirely possible that somebody's life expectancy in a prison in Greenock is somewhat shorter than the life expectancy with aggressive drug therapy in Tripoli," Salmond said.

Legislation Introduced

In London, a rebel Conservative lawmaker, Robert Halfon, has introduced a bill that would exclude prisoners convicted of mass murder from being considered for compassionate release anywhere in the U.K. Halfon says he is unconvinced by the British government's claims that the decision to release Megrahi was out of their hands.

"I feel sure that if the last government wanted to stop this mass murderer going back to be lauded by a dictatorship, they could have stopped it," he said.

Cameron has proposed a full review of any papers that exist on the subject -- a move far short of a full investigation. The top British minister for Scottish affairs told his fellow British lawmakers Wednesday that the decision to free Megrahi was made "in good faith."

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