Labour did 'all it could' to secure release of Megrahi

Nigel Morris,Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 08 February 2011 01:00

Gordon Brown's government did "all it could" to help Libya secure the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, a report by Britain's top civil servant concluded yesterday.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, said that ministers developed a policy which was designed to "facilitate" the release of the Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

The Scottish government claimed that the Brown administration altered its position because of "commercial considerations" – including lobbying by BP, which was preparing to develop oilfields off the Libyan coast.

Sir Gus's report judged that the decision was taken by the devolved Edinburgh government alone.

He found no evidence that London – or BP – put pressure on the Scottish authorities to free Megrahi, who was released in 2009.

The findings have been criticised by several US senators. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez said it "really stretches the imagination" that there was no direct pressure from London on the Scottish government.

Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said: "Justice was traded for commercial interests." As opposition leader, Mr Cameron condemned the release and after the election instructed Sir Gus to trawl through the previous administration's confidential papers to get to the bottom of private negotiations between London, Edinburgh and Libya.

The publication of 140 pages of confidential Whitehall documents triggered angry Commons scenes, with each side claiming Sir Gus's report had vindicated their stance. The PM accused former ministers of lacking candour in their public pronouncements over Megrahi and badly underestimating the public reaction to his release.

Mr Brown and other ex-ministers retorted that the report cleared them of lobbying for Megrahi's release.

Sir Gus found that the previous government did "all it could" to advise Libya on how best to obtain freedom for the Lockerbie bomber.

One Foreign Office document released by Sir Gus said: "Facilitating direct contact between the Libyans and the Scottish Executive is a key part of our game plan on Megrahi."

Another paper from the department said: "We now need to go further and work actively but discreetly to ensure that Megrahi is transferred back to Libya under the PTA, or failing that released on compassionate grounds." The bomber was sent home to Libya in August 2009 following medical advice that he would die from cancer within three months. He is still alive.

While Sir Gus said he had found nothing in the paperwork which contradicted statements made at the time by ministers, Mr Cameron told MPs it was also clear they had not given a "full picture" of the government's position.

He described the release of Megrahi as "profoundly wrong" and said Labour ministers had "badly underestimated" the impact in both Britain and the US, the home country of most of the victims.

"This man was convicted of the largest mass murder in British history. That should have been coursing through ministerial veins and brains when they read these memos," he said.

Diplomatic sources pointed out last night that while negotiations were going on between Britain and Libya, Washington was encouraging London to maintain good relations with Tripoli.

This followed the work of UK officials in getting Colonel Gaddafi to divulge details about the international nuclear trade and the role played in it by rogue Pakistani scientist AQ Khan.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Scottish Secretary at the time of the atrocity, pointed to a memo of a meeting at which Bill Rammell, the former Foreign Office minister, promised his Libyan counterpart advice on obtaining the release: "Does this not confirm the previous government was up to its neck in this shoddy business; that it was desperate to see the release of Mr Megrahi and it must therefore share responsibility with the Scottish Government for one of the most foolish and shameful decisions of recent years?"

What the ministers said – and what we know now

Foreign Secretary David Miliband, August 2009: Questioned about whether Megrahi was released to smooth relations between the UK and Libya: "I really reject that entirely; that is a slur both on myself and the Government."

Mr Miliband, also in August 2009: "We have been scrupulous in saying this decision should be made by the Scottish authorities... scrupulous in saying that to the Libyans... scrupulous in saying that to the Americans... It is wrong to say the British government has put pressure on the Scottish authorities or anyone else."

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, February 2011: Says the Labour government lobbied for Megrahi's release: "Policy was progressively developed that HMG [Her Majesty's Government] should do all it could... to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the PTA [prisoner transfer agreement] or release on compassionate grounds."

Justice Secretary Jack Straw, August 2009: "Was there a covert, secret deal struck with the Libyans to release Megrahi in return for oil? No, there was not."

Scottish Government, February 2011: "The UK review confirms that the UK government's position on the negotiation of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya was influenced by commercial considerations, including lobbying by BP."

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