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Scotland still defending release of Lockerbie bomber

Lingering suspicions that the decision was prompted by Libyan oil interests more than humanitarian concerns over the bomber's terminal cancer are again rebutted by government officials.

September 01, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Amid continued allegations of political deal-making, Scottish officials said Monday that the early release of the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland was motivated solely by humanitarian and judicial concerns, not commercial ones.

British interests in Libya's large oil and gas reserves were irrelevant to the decision to release Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, a suspected Libyan spy found guilty in 2001, said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's deputy first minister.

Megrahi, 57, is in the advanced stages of terminal prostate cancer and was set free Aug. 20 from a Scottish prison on "compassionate grounds" to spend the remainder of his life with his family in his homeland.

"That was a decision taken entirely on justice grounds," Sturgeon told the BBC. "There were no influences relating to political or economic interests that played any part in that."

Libyan officials also rejected suggestions that a contract won by British oil company BP in 2007 to explore for oil in their country influenced the decision to release Megrahi.

"Linking this [contract] with a deal over Megrahi makes me laugh," said Mohammed Siala, secretary for international cooperation at the Libyan Foreign Ministry, according to Reuters news service. "We have our laws and tender process, and BP is a very good actor in the oil field and we are satisfied with what they are doing."

The release of someone convicted of mass slaughter, followed by footage of his being greeted by crowds of well-wishers upon returning to Libya, has whipped up a storm of protest in the U.S., home to the majority of the passengers on Pan Am Flight 103, and in Britain. The bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack on or over British soil, killed all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland.

Libya turned Megrahi over to British authorities in 1999 in exchange for an easing of United Nations sanctions. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that critics say was based on tainted evidence.

Megrahi has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and supporters, including some of the victims' families, believe he was wrongly convicted.

The decision to release him was made by Scotland's devolved government, which has independence from London in judicial matters. But that has not insulated British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Cabinet from scrutiny.

Over the weekend, a British newspaper reported that the central government had originally sought to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner-transfer agreement that was under discussion between London and Tripoli as part of their improving relations.

In late 2007, London reversed course and dropped the exclusion "in the view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom," said a letter written at the time by Justice Minister Jack Straw, according to the Sunday Times. Shortly after, BP sealed the $24-billion contract to conduct oil and gas exploration in Libya.

Straw denied any quid pro quo.

"Was there a deal -- a covert, a secret deal -- ever struck with the Libyans to release Mr. Megrahi in return for oil? No, there was not," Straw told the BBC.

"We wanted a normalization of relations with Libya," he added. "That was in the United Kingdom's interests, and the reason for that is that we had uncovered a huge nuclear-weapons program of the Libyans, which they'd been conducting wholly in secret."

In 2003, Libya agreed to allow in nuclear inspectors to dismantle its weapons program, an important milestone in Tripoli's coming in from the diplomatic cold.

In any case, Straw noted, Megrahi was not released under the prisoner-transfer agreement but on compassionate grounds.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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