Megrahi transfer deal agreed in 2007

 

Britain agreed to include Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer
deal with Libya in 2007 because of "overwhelming interests" just before an oil deal with Tripoli, it was reported today.

Footage of the Lockerbie bomber in his hospital bed emerged as the row over his release raged on today.

It followed disclosures that Jack Straw decided two years ago that it was in the UK’s “overwhelming interests” not to exclude Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement.

The Justice Secretary wrote to his Scottish counterpart explaining that he had changed his mind about the need to exempt the terrorist from the deal in the light of “wider negotiations” with the Libyans.

Questions were also being raised about whether Downing Street had approved the move to include Megrahi in the agreement.

Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said today it was no secret that the UK government negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “To be frank, I don’t know what deals the UK Government did or tried to do in the context of that agreement.

“It’s certainly the case that Al Megrahi was not excluded from that agreement. What I do know, and can state categorically, as Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond have both done, is that these deals - if such deals existed - played no part whatsoever in the decision Kenny MacAskill took to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.”

She also insisted that Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal played no part in Mr MacAskill’s decision.

The footage, broadcast last night by Channel 4 News, showed the bomber attached to a drip and wearing an oxygen mask.

He was propped up on pillows, unshaven, and hooked up to tubes and a monitor.

A picture of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi hung on the wall and a copy of the Koran lay beside his bed.

When asked by a reporter if his release was related to an oil deal signed two years ago, he croaked a refusal to answer.

Mr Straw strenuously denied yesterday that Britain’s commercial interests had any bearing on the recent release of Megrahi.

But the latest disclosures angered relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and prompted opposition parties to call for an inquiry.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey said: “Labour ministers will not now escape the suspicion of a terrorist-for-trade deal unless they agree to the transparency of a full inquiry.”

Mr Straw’s involvement in the case was laid bare in letters he wrote to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in 2007 and leaked this weekend to The Sunday Times.

In one, he wrote: “I had previously accepted the importance of the al-Megrahi issue to Scotland and said I would try to get an exclusion for him on the face of the agreement.

“I have not been able to secure an explicit exclusion.

“The wider negotiations are reaching a critical stage and, in view of the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance the (prisoner transfer agreement) should be in the standard form and not mention any individual.”

Mr Straw’s apparent change of heart came at a crucial time in negotiations about an oil exploration contract for BP in Libya. Six weeks later, the deal was ratified.

Megrahi’s release - sanctioned by Mr MacAskill earlier this month - was not in fact part of the prisoner transfer agreement but made on compassionate grounds.

But the letters threw up new questions for the British government about its role in the issue. Ministers have refused to say whether they support the release, insisting it was a matter entirely for Mr MacAskill, a Scottish National Party MSP.

REUTERS/PA