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Free to die: bitter legacy of the Lockerbie bomber

Andrew Grice
Thursday 20 August 2009 00:01 BST

Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, the only person convicted over the Lockerbie bombing, is expected to learn today that he will be released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds so that he can return to Libya, his homeland.

Al-Megrahi, 57, has prostate cancer and perhaps only three months to live. His fate is in the hands of Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary in the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration in Edinburgh. His eagerly-awaited announcement has made huge waves around the world, sparking a diplomatic rift between Scotland and the United States and allegations of “dirty deals” involving the British Government, keen to foster good relations with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a one-time international pariah who came in from the cold after renouncing nuclear weapons and who possesses an invaluable negotiating card – his country’s oil reserves.

Al-Megrahi, anxious to spend his final days with his family, has become a pawn in a complex game of international chess. Suspicions that a deal has already been struck were fuelled by reports that he has been sending possessions to Libya from his specially-built cell in Greenock Prison.

In London, ministers dismiss conspiracy theories about a classic fix involving the UK and Scottish governments and Libya. They insist that the decision is purely a judicial one for the Scottish authorities. And yet there seems to be a coalition of overlapping interests pushing for the complicated case to be closed.

For its part, the British Government is reluctant to see the disclosure of further documents from foreign sources which al-Megrahi’s legal team want to be made public. “There are a number of vested interests who have been deeply opposed to this appeal continuing as they know it would go a considerable way towards exposing the truth behind Lockerbie,” claimed Christine Grahame, an outspoken SNP member of the Scottish Parliament who has met al-Megrahi several times in prison. She claims that “new information” would make clear al-Megrahi had nothing to do with the bombing. It might have come to light during an appeal in which the Crown is seeking to lengthen his 27-year minimum sentence.

Ms Grahame said that after the Libyan Government paid $803m in compensation to families of the bombing’s victims, the US and Britain were allowed to invest £800m in Libya’s oil industry. “There are dirty deals here,” she said.

The affair is traumatic for the families of the 270 people who died when Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the Dumfriesshire town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, including 189 Americans. Some fear the release of al-Megrahi would mean the truth about Britain’s worst terrorist atrocity being buried forever. While relatives of many of the US victims believe the former Libyan intelligence officer is guilty, several of their Scottish counterparts are not convinced.

They would be alarmed if his release meant the end of their long quest.

With the spotlight on Edinburgh, London’s role has been largely eclipsed. The man who may have started the ball rolling is Tony Blair, on a visit to Col Gaddafi’s famous tent in Libya in 2004, when they broke the ice and agreed to negotiate a prisoner transfer agreement. Another option is for al-Megrahi to serve the rest of his sentence in a Libyan jail, although this is thought less likely than release on compassionate grounds.

What diplomats politely call “choreography” was stepped up last month when Gordon Brown discussed the case with Col Gaddafi at their first meeting, in the margins of a G8 summit in Italy. Their talks also covered oil prices, with Mr Brown expressing concern that the latest spike could choke off global economic recovery. Downing Street is adamant that the Prime Minister stressed he could not intervene in a judicial decision. But one Whitehall source admitted yesterday: “It was clear this case is very, very important to the Libyans.”

No plot would be complete without an appearance by Lord Mandelson. Although Mr Brown’s talks may have been more significant, the ubiquitous Business Secretary discussed the al-Megrahi case with Col Gaddafi’s son during his recent holiday in Corfu.

Yesterday Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, used rather undiplomatic language to make a last-minute appeal to Mr MacAskill for al-Megrahi to remain in prison. She said: “I knew a lot of these families. I talked with them about what a horror they experienced. I just think it is absolutely wrong to release someone who has been imprisoned based on the evidence about his involvement in such a horrendous crime.”

There are suspicions in Scotland that Ms Clinton is playing to the domestic gallery. Alex Salmond, the SNP First Minister, insisted: “There will be no consideration of international power politics or anything else. It will be taken on the evidence in the interest of justice.”

The intense speculation has fuelled criticism of the SNP administration, which has had an unfortunate debut on the world stage. Mr MacAskill has been widely criticised for meeting al-Megrahi in prison on 5 August. That made it personal, and gave the rumour mill about a deal another turn.

Al-Megrahi’s release would provoke new demands by Lockerbie families for an independent inquiry into the bombing. But they are not confident of securing their long-standing aim. “We are back where we started 21 years ago,” said Rev John Mosey, whose daughter Helga, 19, died in the attack.

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