LONDON (AFP) – The British government decided two years ago it was “in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom” to make the Lockerbie bomber eligible for return to Libya, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.
Leaked letters show Justice Secretary Jack Straw informed his Scottish counterpart, Kenny MacAskill, of the decision to include Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement, the report said.
Five months earlier Straw had said he favoured excluding Megrahi from the agreement.
The Sunday Times said Straw changed his position after discussions between Libya and BP over a massive oil exploration deal had become bogged down, but they were resolved soon afterwards.
Megrahi was not eventually released under the prisoner transfer agreement. MacAskill freed him from a Scottish prison this month on compassionate grounds because he has terminal cancer.
However, the disclosure of the letters will raise questions about Britain’s stance on the release of Megrahi, the only person convicted for killing 270 people when a Pan Am jet was blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988.
The British government has insisted the decision was made solely by the Scottish authorities and has refuted allegations that Megrahi was granted freedom as part of a deal to help facilitate contracts with oil-rich Libya.
In a letter dated July 26, 2007, Straw said he favoured an option to omit Megrahi from the prison transfer agreement by stipulating that any prisoners convicted before a specified date would be ineligible for transfer.
On December 19, 2007, Straw changed his decision as Libya used its deal with BP as a bargaining chip to insist the Lockerbie bomber was included, The Sunday Times said.
BP denied that political factors played a role in the deal’s ratification.
In a statement responding to the report, Straw said the proposed exclusion of Megrahi from the prisoner transfer scheme had been dropped because “it went beyond the standard form”.
“It was always made clear to the Libyans that, as with all other such agreements, the sentencing jurisdiction — in this case Scotland — had a right to veto any individual application including that of any application from Mr Megrahi,” Straw said.
He added that the Scottish authorities “wanted a specific carve out from the PTA (Prisoner Transfer Agreement) treaty in respect of Mr Megrahi.
“I gave instructions to British negotiators to try to secure this.
“However, such an exclusion went beyond the standard form of PTA treaties and in the event an agreement for a PTA in the standard form — including the rights of veto of any application — was agreed.
“All this, however, is academic as Mr Megrahi was not released under the PTA treaty but quite separately by the Scottish Executive on compassionate grounds.”
Megrahi, who insists he is innocent, told another British newspaper on Saturday that he supported calls by relatives of the Lockerbie victims for a public inquiry into the atrocity.