British insist they didn’t cut Lockerbie deal
London distances itself from release of airline bomber
LONDON - Britain yesterday rejected any suggestion that it had struck a deal with Libya to free the Lockerbie bomber - questions that arose when Moammar Khadafy publicly thanked British officials as he embraced the man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 airline bombing.
Khadafy praised Prime Minister Gordon Brown and members of the royal family by name for what he described as influencing the decision to let the terminally ill Abdel Baset al-Megrahi return home to die.
Thousands greeted Megrahi at the airport as he arrived in Tripoli after being freed Thursday from a Scottish prison.
But British officials insisted they did not tell Scottish justice officials what to do - and in any case, they could not, because the decision was not theirs to make.
“The idea that the British government and the Libyan government would sit down and somehow barter over the freedom or the life of this Libyan prisoner and make it form part of some business deal . . . it’s not only wrong, it’s completely implausible and actually quite offensive,’’ Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told reporters in London.
Britain has walked a fine line in the issue, as the government in London must distance itself from local affairs in Scotland.
While outraged at the jubilant reception al-Megrahi received in Libya, British leaders have refrained from criticizing the decision to free the man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a decision made in Edinburgh under Scotland’s separate judicial system.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill decided to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because the Libyan has prostate cancer and was given only months to live by top British doctors.
Compassionate leave for dying inmates is a regular feature of Scottish justice.
In Washington yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller blasted MacAskill for allowing the Lockerbie bomber to return home, saying the decision gave comfort to terrorists around the world.
“Your action,’’ he wrote MacAskill, “makes a mockery of the grief of the families who lost their own on December 21, 1988.’’
President Obama earlier called the decision “highly objectionable.’’
Most of those killed were Americans, and their families have been scathing in their criticism of the Libyan’s release.
As the cameras rolled in Tripoli, Khadafy hugged Megrahi in a meeting Friday and Megrahi kissed the Libyan leader’s hand.
Libyan television showed pictures of Khadafy singling out Brown, as well as “the queen of Britain, Elizabeth, and Prince Andrew, who all contributed to encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacles.’’
A Buckingham Palace spokesman said yesterday that the release was “entirely a matter for the Scottish government.’’ The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with palace policy.
Khadafy’s embrace fueled outrage that has simmered at Megrahi’s reception in Libya, where joyful celebrants threw flower petals as the 57-year-old former Libyan intelligence agent stepped down from the jet late Thursday.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Friday condemned the scenes as “deeply distressing.’’
The constant videos of the Khadafy hug and the kiss have only added to the woes of Britain’s leaders. Mandelson left the hospital yesterday after a prostate operation only to find a scrum of reporters demanding answers about an alleged deal. He insisted that London and Tripoli did not negotiate.
To further drive home the point, Brown released the text of a letter he sent to Khadafy urging that Megrahi’s return be treated as “a purely private family occasion.’’
“A high-profile return would cause further unnecessary pain for the families of the Lockerbie victims. It would also undermine Libya’s growing international reputation,’’ Brown wrote.
While Britain does have oil interests in Libya - notably a $900 million exploration deal between
Even so, Khadafy’s son, Seif al-Islam Khadafy, said Megrahi’s release was a constant point of discussion during trade talks.
In comments aired on the Libyan TV station he owns, he said those discussions stretched back to former prime minister Tony Blair’s government.
“In fact, in all the trade, oil, and gas deals which I have supervised, you were there on the table,’’ Khadafy’s son told Megrahi. “When British interests came to Libya, I used to put you on the table.’’
Blair, who resigned in 2007, told CNN on Saturday that the Libyans did raise the issue of Megrahi but he told them he did not have the power to release the bomber.
Mandelson agreed with Blair.
“This goes back very many years,’’ he said. “The Libyan government and representatives of Libya have always raised the issue of this prisoner.’’
In a statement yesterday, Khadafy’s son also insisted that Megrahi was innocent.
“There is a great deal of data, evidence and new facts that attest to his innocence. It is my hope that this will be proven one day,’’ he said.
Megrahi was convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground in Britain’s worst terrorist attack.
His trial at a special Scottish court set up in The Netherlands, which came after years of diplomatic maneuvering, was a step toward normalizing relations between the West and Libya, which spent years under UN and US sanctions because of the Lockerbie bombing.
Although Libya has accepted formal responsibility for the attack over Scotland, many in his homeland see Megrahi as an innocent victim scapegoated by the West.
Megrahi has maintained his innocence even as he dropped his appeal so that he could be released from prison.