Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi has far outlived his prognosis of three months to live (AP) The US government secretly advised Scottish ministers that it would be “far preferable” to free the Lockerbie bomber than jail him in Libya.
Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times reveals that Barack Obama’s administration considered compassionate release more palatable than locking up Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in a Libyan prison.
The intervention, which has angered American relatives of those who died in the attack, was made by Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US embassy in London, a week before Megrahi was freed in August last year on grounds that he had terminal cancer.
The document, acquired by a well placed US source, threatens to undermine Obama’s claim last week that all Americans were “surprised, disappointed and angry” to learn of Megrahi’s release.
Scottish ministers are understood to have viewed the level of US resistance to compassionate release as “half-hearted” and a sign that it would be accepted.
The United States has tried to keep the letter secret, refusing to give permission to the Scottish authorities to publish it on the grounds that it would prevent future “frank and open communications” with other governments.
In the letter, sent on August 12 last year to Alex Salmond, the first minister, and justice officials, LeBaron wrote that the United States wanted Megrahi to remain imprisoned in view of the nature of the crime.
The note added: “Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.” LeBaron added that freeing the bomber and making him live in Scotland “would mitigate a number of the strong concerns we have expressed with regard to Megrahi’s release”.
The US administration lobbied the Scottish government more strongly against sending Megrahi home under a prisoner transfer agreement signed by the British and Libyan governments — in a deal now known to have been linked to a £550m oil contract for BP.
It claimed this would flout a decade-old agreement reached by the UK and US governments that anyone convicted of the bombing would serve their sentence in a Scottish prison.
Megrahi was released by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, on the grounds that he had only three months to live, making his sentence effectively spent.
The US Senate foreign relations committee launched an inquiry after The Sunday Times revealed this month that Megrahi’s doctors thought he could live for another decade.
A source close to the Senate inquiry said: “The [LeBaron] letter is embarrassing for the United States because it shows they were much less opposed to compassionate release than prisoner transfer.”
Last week a succession of British politicians delivered a diplomatic snub to the senators by refusing to fly across the Atlantic to answer questions at the Senate’s hearing on Thursday about their role in Megrahi’s release.
On Friday MacAskill said he was “accountable to Scotland”, not the United States. He insisted he had “no information to provide” on any suspected oil deal involving lobbying by BP.
He was backed by Salmond, who said: “Scottish ministers are not answerable to American senators and likewise.
For example, there are no US senators answering questions at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.”
Jack Straw, the former justice secretary, also turned down an invitation to the congressional hearing. “I had absolutely nothing to do with that decision [to release Megrahi] . . . Indeed I was on holiday at the time and only learnt about it from an item on the BBC News website,” he said on Friday.
Despite the continuing controversy over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the row about Megrahi’s release, it emerged this weekend that BP is planning deep-water drilling off Libya. At a depth of more than 1,700m below sea level, the new site in Libya’s Gulf of Sirte will be 200m deeper than the Gulf well.
Susan Cohen, whose only child Theodora, 20, was killed on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, described LeBaron’s intervention as “dreadful”. She said: “I am very disappointed that there would be any discussion of alternatives to [Megrahi] staying in British custody. It is unacceptable when they should have simply been saying there was no way [he] could get out, not splitting hairs about possible options.”
The US State Department declined to comment.
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