Leading article: Questions conveniently overlooked

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This will not be the last word on the unsettling case of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted on 270 counts of murder for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. That will come only after his death. But it could be the next-to-last word, even though it offers only the same answers concerning his release that pretty much everyone suspected.

The report compiled by Sir Gus O'Donnell at the behest of the Prime Minister found that the last Labour government had an "underlying desire" to see the convicted bomber released before he died and did "all it could" to facilitate that result while not actually putting pressure on the Scottish government.

As the self-serving responses from the main players showed, these conclusions suit almost everyone. Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, was found to have done nothing that would have undermined Scotland's judicial sovereignty. No heavy hand, then. No disgrace either. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his justice minister salvaged their dignity. This was a fully Scottish decision; they had done nothing to impugn Scotland's honour. The conclusions suit David Cameron, too. Just enough material to cast aspersions on the last government, but nothing that would precipitate any new diplomatic row.

That the Libyan government had been encouraged – by British officials – to work through Scotland's distinct legal system; that compassionate release, rather than prisoner exchange, was sought; and that this entailed Megrahi abandoning his appeal – so avoiding possibly new doubts about his guilt – are questions that remain without satisfactory answers. So does the rather distasteful question over the prognosis of how long Megrahi might have to live. Nor is there a whiff of any link with Britain's desire to increase trade with Libya in general, or remove obstacles to a deal for BP in particular. It all looks just a classic diplomatic fudge.

Knowing even what we do, however, this affair stands as a microcosm of how deals with unsavoury regimes are struck. As the winds of change blow over North Africa, could it be not just a reminder of how things were done, but also of how they might be done differently?

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