First, was al-Megrahi’s transfer a condition of the Blair-Gadaffi Deal in the Desert? On Friday, Saif al-Islam said: “In all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the negotiating table”. The Foreign Office deny this and yesterday Lord Mandelson said:
“The issue of the prisoner’s release is quite separate from the general matter of our relations and indeed the prisoner’s release has not been influenced in any way by the British government.”
In addition to Gordon Brown’s Macavity act, Number 10 has leaked a letter that Brown sent Gadaffi hours before al-Megrahi’s release that mentions “shared interests”, but ignores any mention of the prisoner, to reinforce the party line. But that line is contradicted by the correspondence between Kenny MacAskill and Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis. The Sunday Times reports that Lewis wrote to MacAskill on 3rd August, saying that there was no legal reason not to accept Libya’s request to transfer al-Megrahi, under the terms of a 2007 UK and Libya treaty. This answers my first question: it seems al-Megrahi’s release from Scottish custody was a condition of the treaty. It is astonishing that the British Prime Minister would have agreed to the release of the only convicted terrorist responsible for one of the 20 Century’s most appalling atrocities. It was always going to be politically difficult, especially as al-Megrahi would be welcomed as a hero in Libya.
The British government discovered this and it must have given them a headache, the answer to which was to tempt Alex Salmond’s vanity - a strategy that couldn't fail. But it raises the question: did Libya threaten Britain with trade sanctions and breaking off diplomatic relations if the al-Megrahi clause was not honoured? Again, the Foreign Office denies this, but Oliver Miles, a former ambassador to Libya, tells the Sunday Times that in the past Libyan officials used “very strong alarmist language about the consequences if Mr Megrahi died in jail and I think that included mention of breach of diplomatic relations”. This whole episode, extending all the way back to that first negotiation held in a Bedouin tent, stinks of realpolitik. Gadaffi has al-Megrahi, Britain has its lucrative contracts, Hillary Clinton and the America administration can voice its righteous indignation (but did nothing to stop Megrahi’s release) and Alex Salmond can pose as an enlightened Damocles. Diplomatically, everyone’s a winner; morally it’s repugnant – exemplified by the terminally ill al-Megrahi carrying his walking-stick up the steps to the aeroplane that would take him home.