EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) – Britain did not want the Lockerbie bomber to die in a Scottish prison, Britain’s foreign secretary acknowledged Wednesday, as Scotland’s parliament resumed debate on the decision to free the terminally ill Libyan and let him die at home.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband defended Britain’s government in a BBC interview following the release of confidential documents about discussions regarding convicted bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. Miliband confirmed details that emerged in the documents, suggesting that the U.K. had not sought to have al-Megrahi serve out his life
“We did not want him to die in prison, no, we weren’t seeking his death in prison,” Miliband said.
The remarks, and the release of the documents, offer the first formal indication of the British government’s thoughts on the release. The government had previously refused to be drawn into the issue, saying it was up to the government in Scotland to decide on justice issues.
Al-Megrahi, 57, was the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Scotland freed him on compassionate grounds Aug. 20 after doctors said he had terminal cancer.
Opposition leader David Cameron immediately seized upon Miliband’s remarks, demanding an investigation into the controversy.
“The prime minister and the government stand accused of double-dealing, saying one thing to the Libyans in private, refusing to express an opinion to the British public and indicating something else to the Americans,” Cameron said. “That is why we need an inquiry to clear this matter up.”
The British government released the documents Tuesday in an attempt to quell speculation that it had pushed al-Megrahi’s release to boost economic cooperation with Libya. But the documents fanned more resentment in the United States, where al-Megrahi’s release was vehemently opposed.
Britain has regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are responsible for local issues but retains power over foreign policy.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the decision to free al-Megrahi was Scotland’s. He will now face increased pressure to say how he viewed Scotland’s decision, a stand he was been reluctant to take because of domestic political pressure to keep regional issues separate from the national ones.
Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in 2001 with a minimum term of 27 years. Releasing prisoners on compassionate grounds is a regular feature of Scottish justice for dying inmates.
Anger has been percolating on both sides of the Atlantic since al-Megrahi flew home to a hero’s welcome in Libya. The families of some American victims have said they were disgusted by the bomber’s release, which was also sharply criticized by President Barack Obama, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Richard Kolko said Tuesday that his department had “received assurances in the 1990s that al-Megrahi’s full sentence would be served in Scotland.”
The American statement seemed to contradict some of the released documents, including one from Britain’s Foreign Office that said there was no categorical commitment given to the United States to keep al-Megrahi jailed.
During debate in the Scottish parliament Wednesday, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he had received “conflicting advice” from officials in London on what assurances Britain had given Libya and the United States.
“I still do not know the exact nature of the pretrial discussions or what may have been agreed between the Libyan and U.K. or any other governments,” he said.
American victims’ families reacted with fury to the disclosures.
“The fix has been in for a while,” said Bob Monetti, whose 20-year-old brother Richard from Cherry Hill, N.J. was among those killed. “The U.K. has put incredible pressure on Scotland to do this thing, and they finally caved in.”
As the more than a dozen documents dated between 2007 and 2009 were released, Libya marked the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Col. Moammar Gadhafi to power, an extravag nza meant to celebrate the return of the former pariah state into the international fold after terrorism. The disclosures followed claims in the British media that the British government struck a deal with Libyan authorities to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement because that was in Britain’s best interests as a major oil deal was being negotiated.
Britain has growing economic interests in Libya, from oil exploration to financial services. Last year, British imports from Libya topped some 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion).
But the British government has repeatedly denied its role in the release and said there was no pressing commercial deal.