Democrat Postpones Senate Hearing on Lockerbie Controversy, After Key Witnesses Rebuff His Request to ‘Clear the Air’

By Patrick Goodenough | July 28, 2010 | 4:58 AM EDT

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (AP Photo)

(Update: New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez told the BBC late Thursday, July 29, he plans to send members to Britain to interview witnesses including Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and former British Justice Secretary Jack Straw.)

– Accusing Scottish and British officials and BP executives of “stonewalling,” the Democratic senator who was to have chaired a hearing this week on the Lockerbie controversy announced Tuesday that it would be postponed.
“We are at a place where no witnesses of consequence has the courage to step forward and clear the air,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey told reporters. “They would prefer to sweep this under the rug.”
The scheduled Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was supposed to look into suspicions that the early release of the Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie bombing case happened because of lobbying by BP, which secured a major exploration contract in Libya.
Scotland’s devolved government turned down the committee’s request to make Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Scottish Prison Service medical chief Dr. Andrew Fraser available for Thursday’s hearing.
Former British justice secretary Jack Straw also declined to participate, and BP refused to send two specified representatives – outgoing CEO Tony Hayward and consultant Sir Mark Allen.
BP instead offered another senior executive, but the committee demurred. Menendez reserved the bulk of his criticism for the oil giant.
“It is hard to imagine that a company on such thin ice with the American public after devastating our Gulf Coast would not fully cooperate in getting to the bottom of the release of a terrorist who murdered 189 Americans,” he said.
With the key witnesses declining to attend, Tuesday’s postponement announcement was not unexpected.
MacAskill was the official who released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from prison last August and allowed him to fly home to Libya, after he had served less than 10 years of a life sentence for the murder of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
MacAskill based the decision on advice from medical specialists collated by Fraser, the prison service medical officer, to the effect that Megrahi’s prostate cancer was terminal and he could reasonably be expected to die within three months.
Straw’s involvement in the affair included negotiating a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with the Libyan government in 2007 – two years before Megrahi’s release. Unhappy about the PTA issue, Scotland at the time urged the British government to include a clause in the agreement specifically excluding Megrahi, but Libya refused to accept this and Straw gave in.
BP has acknowledged telling British authorities in 2007 that delays in finalizing the PTA “might have negative consequences” for a pending massive oil exploration deal in Libya. After the PTA was concluded, the Libyans ratified the BP deal.
Libya last year requested that Megrahi be repatriated under the PTA, but the Scottish authorities rejected the application.
Instead, MacAskill released him “on compassionate grounds,” a decision he maintains was the correct one, irrespective of Megrahi’s unforeseen survival almost a year later.
‘Economic and political considerations have no place’
Scotland insists that it was never lobbied by BP over Megrahi.
“I can say unequivocally that the Scottish government has never, at any point, received any representations from BP in relation to Al-Megrahi,” Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond wrote in a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry last week.
“We had no submissions or lobbying of any kind from BP, either oral or written,” he said.
Documentation released by the Scottish government shows, however, that it was approached in July 2009 by a group representing British trade interests in Libya – of which BP is a member – urging the release of the ailing Megrahi.
Libyan British Business Council (LBBC) chairman Lord David Trefgarne in a letter to MacAskill cited Megrahi’s condition and asked him to free the Libyan either on compassionate grounds or under the PTA.
Trefgarne expressed concern that if Megrahi died in prison, this would have an impact on British-Libyan relations – a prospect which he said was “of grave concern to LBBC members.”
In a letter replying to the LBBC chairman, MacAskill confirmed that he was considering both the compassionate release option and Libya’s PTA application.
But, he added, “I have said quite clearly that my decision will be one based on judicial grounds alone and that economic and political considerations have no place in the process.”
Also released by Scotland under the label “communication with the Libyan British Business Council,” was the copy of a May 2009 letter from Salmond, replying to an email (which was not provided).
In the letter, Salmond wrote that Libya’s request for Megrahi’s release “will be considered in line with the prisoner transfer agreement, relevant legislation and on the individual merits of the application. No other matters beyond judicial ones will have any consideration.”
“It would therefore not be appropriate to conduct discussions on any matters concerning trade or investment in any way which could be confused with judicial matters,” he added. “The point has been made firmly to all interested parties.”
According to the LBBC Web site, BP is one of 24 companies with top-tier membership in the trade group.
Menendez and three other Democratic senators calling for answers about Megrahi’s release – New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg and New Yorkers Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer – said Tuesday they would push for an investigation into Megrahi’s release that could form the basis for a re-scheduled hearing.
Before the postponement decision was announced, Lautenberg said “the stonewalling in this case is inconsistent with the longstanding ties between the U.S. and United Kingdom.”
“The U.K. and the Scottish governments have been pointing fingers at each other and anyone else they can find about their decision to release this mass murderer,” he said. “In the interest of justice, the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 deserve the truth. If there is nothing to hide, the U.K., Scotland and BP should have no problem cooperating in this investigation.”
Earlier, veteran Lockerbie campaigners voiced hope that the Senate hearing would not be limited to the BP allegations, but would also examine whether Megrahi was freed to prevent an appeal hearing that could have overturned his conviction, which some legal experts believe was unsound.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow