John Rentoul: Compassion, not trade, freed Megrahi

Tony Blair did not engineer the release of the man they call the Lockerbie bomber, and the oil argument is slippery
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Of all the things that people think they know about Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, let us start at the beginning. It was Tony Blair who put Megrahi behind bars. As Prime Minister, he negotiated the deal by which Libya surrendered into Dutch custody two men suspected of killing 270 in the Lockerbie bombing. They were tried by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands in 2000-01. Megrahi was found guilty and transferred to jail in Scotland; his co-accused was found not guilty and released.

The story then moves on two years, during which time Britain joined the invasion of Iraq. On 16 December 2003, a secret meeting took place at The Travellers Club, first reported by Jane Merrick, The Independent on Sunday's political editor, last year. For eight hours, Libyan officials discussed with MI6, the Foreign Office and the CIA how Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime might end its status as an outcast. Gaddafi was ready to give up his attempts – which had been penetrated by British intelligence – to acquire weapons of mass destruction, but wanted something in return. One of the things he wanted, which was discussed at that meeting, was the release of Megrahi.

We do not know what was agreed about the Megrahi case. But two days later, Blair and Gaddafi spoke by telephone; and the next day, 19 December, Blair and George Bush, embarrassed by the failure to find WMD in Iraq, announced that Libya had agreed to give up its WMD ambitions.

On the external evidence, the release of Megrahi was not part of the deal to bring Gaddafi in from the cold. Indeed, the UK government had no power to release Megrahi – a matter for the devolved Scottish government. Blair may have promised to look again at the case, as Megrahi's appeals ground slowly through the legal system.

At the same time, Britain and Libya sought to normalise relations, including by starting to negotiate a prisoner transfer agreement. As a treaty between Libya and the UK, this might have given the UK government at Westminster the power to release Megrahi, except that Blair's proposal specifically excluded him. It was only after Blair ceased to be Prime Minister that the agreement was concluded, and the clause excluding Megrahi dropped. In any case, the agreement gave the Scottish government a veto, and Megrahi was actually released in August last year by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice minister, exercising his discretion under Scottish law on compassionate grounds.

Yet the idea persists that Megrahi was released as part of a secret deal, in which the UK government, or Blair in particular, was the willing accomplice of the oil industry, or BP in particular. And last week this persistent idea was exploited by a group of four US senators, keen to promote their re-election prospects by bashing Big Oil, the polluters of the Gulf of Mexico, with an added anti-British subliminal message, the equivalent of flashing up "Boston Tea Party" on the American cerebral cortex for a split-second, too briefly to be perceived by the conscious mind.

David Cameron wisely changed his mind and agreed to meet the votegrubbing four when he was in Washington on Tuesday. But MacAskill and Jack Straw, who was UK Justice Secretary at the time of Megrahi's release, refused to answer the summons of the Senate committee; while Blair's "draft" invitation turned out to be "unauthorised" and a "mistake".

Senatorial opportunism aside, however, there are gaps in the Megrahi story to make it all too tempting to join the dots. Is he actually guilty? Is he actually dying? The biggest gap is the answer to the question, "Why did the Scottish government release him?"

This much we know: Blair did do a deal with Libya; Libya did press for Megrahi's release; multinational companies did have an interest in opening up Libyan oil and other markets; Blair wanted to promote Libyan trade; Blair did have links with BP (Anji Hunter, his former aide, worked with John Browne, its chief executive, until they both left in 2007); BP pressed for the prisoner transfer agreement after Blair had gone. As we report today, BP will start drilling in deep water off Libya within weeks. Each element is true, so it does not seem outlandish to assume that Blair signalled to Gaddafi that Megrahi might eventually be released in return for BP's access to Libya's oil.

Except that this assumption stubbornly fails to bridge the gap. It assumes that Blair influenced from beyond the political grave the decisions of his enemy Gordon Brown and his opponent Alex Salmond. Megrahi was not even diagnosed with cancer until after Blair had left Downing Street, and his release was specifically excluded from the terms of the prisoner transfer agreement while Blair was prime minister. He was eventually released by a Scottish National Party government led by Salmond, who would have rather slit his throat than do what Brown asked him to do.

The immediate motive for Megrahi's release may lie in the political culture of Scotland, and the desire of an insurgent SNP to thumb its nose at London. The decision was hardly popular at the time, but it was more popular in Scotland, supported by between 32 and 42 per cent in the polls, as opposed to 15 to 27 per cent in Great Britain as a whole. There was a stronger feeling in Scotland that it was compassionate; and that he was probably innocent anyway.

It was a decision that was made in the context of a geopolitical strategy, led by Blair, of bringing Libya into the fold. That included the normalisation of business relations. Agree or disagree with that strategy, but a "big oil" conspiracy is too crude to explain Megrahi's release.

And the one thing of which we can be sure is that the oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig, run by a company that is more American than British, has nothing to do with any of it.

John Rentoul blogs at