“There was a clear understanding at the time of the trial that al-Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scotland. In the 1990s the UK had the same view. It is up to them to explain what changed.”
So how do they explain it? Kenny MacAskill claims that US officials urged him against releasing the Lockerbie bomber because Britain had pledged he would serve his serve sentence in Scotland. Seeking clarification, MacAskill wrote to Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis on 22nd July. Lewis replied that no “definitive commitment” existed and therefore al-Megrahi could be released under the 2007 UK-Libyan prisoner transfers agreement (PTA).
On this occasion, I’m inclined to believe the government. If a firm, definitive commitment existed, I can’t see why the irate US administration didn’t publicise it during the run-up to al-Megrahi’s release, as it would have forced to the British government to intervene in MacAskill’s decision. Equally, I can’t see why the US would fabricate this after the event. It seems likely that Britain gave America informal assurances.
So, why renege on this ‘understanding’ with our closest ally? The Times’ disclosure adds to the sense that al-Megrahi’s release was a pre-condition of all UK-Libyan agreements. Last week, Lord Mandelson denied any such quid pro quo; but, Saif al-Islam Gaddaffi told the Herald: “It (al-Megrahi’s release) was part of the bargaining deal with the UK. Tony Blair came here and we signed the agreement (the PTA).” Blair has gone some way to corroborating this: “The Libyans were raising the case of al-Megrahi all along... We made it clear that the only way this could be dealt with through was through the proper procedures.” By which he means the Scottish justice system upholding a UK-Libya PTA, which from Libya’s perspective was designed to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release. And the former British ambassador to Tripoli recalls the Libyan government issuing threats to break off diplomatic relations if al-Megrahi died in Scotland.
All this suggests that, from 2007, when the PTA was formalised, the British government was aware that the Lockerbie bomber had to be released to protect extremely lucrative contracts. And the contradictions served up by back-peddling ministers and the former PM casts more doubt on the government’s insistence that it didn’t interfere in Edinburgh’s decision.
UPDATE: Many thanks to CoffeeHouser Robert Black for pointing me in the direction of this article. It suggests that Britain and America had a definitive understand that al-Megrahi would serve his term in Britain. That understanding influenced the formulation UN Security Council Resolution 1192 (1998 - as opposed to the 1999 date the Times gives) that provided the international warrant for the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist. It demolishes Ivan Lewis' argument that there was no definitive agreement between the two countries, but not necessarily the claim that Britain initiated that agreement, and increases the sense that the government have been economical with the truth. It's curious that the Americans raised this issue now - there is no chance that the decision will be reversed.