PM 'did not want Megrahi to die in Britain'

As Gaddafi celebrates 40 years' rule in Libya, a new political storm rages over Lockerbie bomber

Andy McSmith,Nigel Morris
Wednesday 02 September 2009 00:00 BST

Libyan officials were secretly told that Gordon Brown wanted the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return home rather than have him die on British soil.

The message was conveyed by a former Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell after the Libyans had warned that Megrahi's death in a Scottish prison would have a "catastrophic" impact on relations between the two countries.

The revelation was contained in a pile of documents released yesterday by the UK and Scottish governments in an attempt to prove that no deal was struck to return Megrahi in exchange for Libyan oil. But it increased the pressure on the Prime Minister to end his two-week silence on whether he supported the release of the terminally ill prisoner. The disclosure was a new setback for Mr Brown who had hoped that the cascade of documents would put an end to the damaging controversy.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, accused Mr Brown of "double dealing" over Megrahi's fate because the US government believed it had a firm promise that the convicted bomber would serve the whole of his life sentence in Scotland.

Megrahi's return last month to Tripoli – where he received a hero's welcome – brought condemnation from around the world. His release came after years of intense negotiations that began with a meeting in 2004 between Tony Blair and ColMuammar Gaddafi, who yesterday celebrated his 40th anniversary of seizing power in Libya.

The documents also disclosed that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, warned it would not be "necessary or sensible" to risk damaging relations with Libya by insisting on Megrahi's exclusion from a prisoner transfer deal.

They showed Mr Straw raised the alarm with Edinburgh over the prisoner's failing health nine months before his release. Reports from Libya yesterday claim Megrahi is now close to death

And the documents reveal that the Foreign Office denied the US government had been given a binding promise that Megrahi would remain in a Scottish jail for life.

The most damning revelation comes in a note of a meeting between Scottish and Libyan officials six months ago, in which Libya's Minister for Europe, Abdulati al-Obidi, claimed Mr Brown and the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, backed the prisoner's return home.

According to notes released by the Scottish government, Libya was given the reassurance in Tripoli by Mr Rammell in February. The note said: "Mr Obidi confirmed that he had reiterated to Mr Rammell that the death of Mr Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK. Mr Alobidi went on to say that Mr Rammell had stated that neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of the Scottish ministers."

There was silence from Downing Street last night, while a brief statement from Mr Rammell, now a Defence minister, failed to deny the Libyan claim. He only said: "Neither the Libyans or the Scottish Executive were left in any doubt throughout this entire process that this was a decision for the Scottish Executive over which the UK Government sought no influence.

"I made it clear in all my dealings with the Libyans that the decision around Megrahi was exclusively one for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Executive alone."

As Mr Salmond insisted the note was accurate, Mr Cameron renewed his call for an independent inquiry into the affair. The Tory leader said: "The British Government stands accused – and indeed the Prime Minister stands accused – of double dealing. On the one hand apparently saying to the Americans they wanted Megrahi to die in prison, but on the other hand saying privately to the Libyans that they wanted him released. Now we have got to get to the bottom of this."

Papers released by the Ministry of Justice showed the Government changed its mind over the question of transferring Megrahi into Libyan custody between July and December 2007.

During these same months BP was waiting for the Libyan government to ratify the biggest oil exploration deal in the company's history, which was drawn up in May of that year and finally sealed in February 2008.

Explaining his change of heart in a letter to Mr Salmond that month, Mr Straw cited "national interests" and stressed the importance of bringing Libya back into the international community. He wrote: "I don't believe it is necessary or sensible to risk damaging our wide-ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion into the PTA [prisoner transfer agreement]."

The papers also show that when the Scottish Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, received a formal request from the Libyans last May to transfer Megrahi, one of his first actions was to consult the US government. Washington strongly objected and claimed that Britain had promised in 1999 when Megrahi was first handed over by Col Gaddafi that if convicted he would serve his entire sentence in Scotland.

Mr MacAskill wrote to the Foreign Office asking to see all the relevant documents, but it refused. A Foreign Office minister, Ivan Lewis, told him: "While the US pressed the UK to provide a definitive commitment on the future imprisonment of the Lockerbie accused, the UK government of the day declined to do this on the grounds that it did not wish to bind the hands of future governments.

"The then UK government could equally not rule out the possibility that our relations with Libya may one day change."

Both the UK and Scottish governments stressed yesterday that the tortuous negotiations over the prisoner transfer were academic because Megrahi, who is suffering advanced prostate cancer, was not transferred but released on compassionate grounds.

The new evidence: What it shows

"Libya agreed prior to Mr al-Megrahi's trial that anyone convicted of the Lockerbie bomb would serve their sentence in Scotland. We have reminded them of this and made clear... that, for this reason, any Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya could not cover Mr Megrahi."

Letter from Lord Falconer to Alex Salmond, 22 June 2007

"I understand you would prefer that the terms of any Agreement with Libya should specifically exclude al-Megrahi... I have set out below the ways this could be achieved."

Letter from Jack Straw to Kenny MacAskill, 26 July 2007

What the letters show As the UK was negotiating a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Libya, both Jack Straw and his predecessor, Lord Falconer, agreed with the SNP that it should never apply to Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

"The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and... I have agreed that in this instance the PTS should be in the standard form and not mention any individual."

Letter from Jack Straw to Kenny MacAskill, 19 December 2007

"I do not believe that it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide- ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion into the PTA."

Letter from Jack Straw to Alex Salmond, 11 February 2008

What the letters show Jack Straw changed his mind in the second half of 2007, making it clear to SNP leaders that this was driven by political considerations.

"Mr Obidi indicated that ... it would be a major problem should Mr Megrahi die in prison, and would be viewed as a form of death sentence."

Note of meeting between Libyan and Scottish officials, 18 November 2008

"Libyan concerns for Megrahi's health and possible return to Libya remain..."

Letter from Jack Straw to Alex Salmond, 21 November 2008

What the letters show The PTA was signed on 17 November 2008, and immediately the Libyans were threatening trouble if Megrahi died in prison.

"Mr al-Obidi spoke of Mr Bill Rammell's (minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) visit to Tripoli in February ... Mr al-Obidi confirmed that he had reiterated to Mr Rammell that the death of Mr Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK. Mr al-Obidi went on to say that Mr Rammell had stated neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison..."

Note of meeting between the Scottish government and a Libyan delegation, 12 March 2009

What the document shows This is the first evidence to substantiate that Gordon Brown and David Miliband wanted Megrahi returned to Libya.

"I have spoken to the US Attorney General... Representations were made to me about the continuing effect of agreements that were reached among the US, UK and Libyan governments through the United Nations prior to the surrender of the accused for trial..."

Letter from Kenny MacAskill to David Miliband, July 2009

What the letter shows Having had a formal application from the Libyan government for Megrahi's transfer, Mr MacAskill consulted the US government, who claimed it would break a promise made by the British in 1999.

"While the US pressed the UK to provide a definitive commitment on the future imprisonment of the Lockerbie accused, the UK government of the day declined to do this... I hope on this basis that you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application."

Letter from Ivan Lewis, a Foreign Office minister, to Kenny MacAskill, 3 August 2009

What the letter shows The Foreign Office's version of events is the US asked for that promise but was not given it.

Megrahi: The unanswered questions

* Why has Gordon Brown – not usually reluctant to condemn decisions by the SNP administration in Edinburgh – constantly refused to give his view on the wisdom of releasing Megrahi?

* How did London and Edinburgh decide which were the "relevant" papers relating to the case? What information was contained in other documents?

* The first document released yesterday over Megrahi's fate dated from the summer of 2007. What discussions took place between 2004 – when Tony Blair first met Col Gaddafi – and then?

* What did Britain and Libya say to each other in official discussions about Megrahi? Were notes taken?

* What were the factors that persuaded Jack Straw to change his mind over Megrahi in the "national interest"?

* What was Jack Straw referring to when he warned that "the wider negotiations with the Libyans are at a critical stage"? Was it a reference to talks with BP over its return to the country?

* Did Kenny MacAskill only take into account the state of the prisoner's health when approving his release? How widely did he consult over the prisoner's condition?

* How did the US government gain the impression that Megrahi would spend his life in jail in Scotland? Were ministers saying one thing to Washington and another to Tripoli?

* Did Jack Straw's warning about the dire state of Megrahi's health influence Kenny MacAskill?

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