Silence From British PM Amid Sharp Criticism Over Lockerbie Case

By Patrick Goodenough | August 24, 2009 | 4:54 AM EDT

Celebrating Libyans surround the convoy carrying returned convict Abdel Baset al-Megrahi after his arrival at an airport in Tripoli on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – Amid continuing transatlantic fallout over the early release from prison of the Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is coming under growing criticism for remaining silent in the face of claims that lucrative oil deals were behind the move.
FBI Director Robert Mueller and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen at the weekend joined the chorus of criticism over Scottish authorities’ decision to free Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi eight years after he received a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill last week freed Megrahi, who reportedly has terminal cancer, on “compassionate” grounds. The Libyan was sentenced in 2001 to life in a Scottish prison, following a trial that took place only after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered him to end international sanctions against the North African country.
Of the 270 people killed in the New York-bound plane and on the ground where the wreckage fell, 189 were Americans.
U.S. anger over the decision to free Megrahi was compounded by scenes of him being hailed by celebrating Libyans on his return to Tripoli. Hours earlier, the administration had urged Gaddafi not to give the newly freed terrorist a “hero’s welcome,” with President Obama saying that Megrahi should be kept under house arrest.
Gaddafi met with Megrahi on Friday, and Libyan television showed footage of the two embracing.
In a scathing letter to MacAskill, Mueller said freeing the Libyan had made a “mockery of the rule of law” and would “bring comfort to terrorists” everywhere.
“Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice,” Mueller wrote, noting that he was familiar with the facts in the case and the law, having been in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991.
Mullen told CNN Sunday he was “appalled” by the move.
‘No deal’
Although Megrahi was released at the behest of Scotland’s devolved authorities, attention increasingly is turning to the government of the United Kingdom, as commentators and opposition parties raise suspicions that the release was linked to efforts to secure multi-million dollar deals in oil-rich Libya.
Gaddafi’s son and presumed heir, Seif al-Islam, who met recently with the British minister responsible for business, Peter Mandelson, fueled the speculation. He was quoted as telling Libya’s Al Mutawassit television channel after Megrahi’s release that the question of Megrahi had always been “on the negotiating table” in talks between Libya and Britain about oil and gas contracts.
In a statement released on the Web site of the foundation he heads, Seif al-Islam thanked “our friends in the British Government who played an important role in attaining this cheerful end.”
Gaddafi himself on Friday thanked Brown and Queen Elizabeth for “encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacles.”
Mandelson denied suggestions of a deal, calling them “offensive.”

BP’s group chief executive Tony Hayward and Shokri Ghanem, chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company, sign and oil exploration and production agreement in Sirte, Libya on May 29, 2007. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and others look on. (Photo: BP release)

MacAskill insisted that the decision was not the result of any pressure from London, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a BBC interview also categorically denied that the government had applied any pressure on the Scottish officials.
Asked whether the British government wanted Megrahi released because it would “smooth the path of our diplomatic relations and our commercial relations with Libya,” Miliband said the claim was “a slur.”
The foreign office in London said in a statement the decision had been taken “exclusively” by Scottish authorities.
“No deal has been made between the U.K. government and Libya in relation to Megrahi and any commercial interests in the country,” it said.
Brown is on summer break, but his silence on the matter is drawing strong criticism from across the British political spectrum.
David Cameron, leading of the official opposition Conservative Party, wrote to Brown urging him to speak out on the release of the Libyan.
“I note that Colonel Gaddafi’s son has now publicly thanked not just the Scottish authorities but the British government for its stance, raising questions about the British government’s role,” he said.
The episode “affects Britain’s international reputation and our relations with our allies,” Cameron said, and he found it “curious that while others have commented, Britain’s own prime minister has not.”
The only political party supportive of the decision to free Megrahi has been the Scottish National Party (SNP), which heads the minority devolved government in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s parliament was recalled from a summer recess on Monday to enable lawmakers to question MacAskill on the affair.
Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond has defended his justice secretary, saying he took the “right decision” for the “right reasons.”
But Salmond’s predecessor in the post – which is essentially that of prime minister – Jack McConnell of the Labor Party, called the move a “grave error of judgment” that had damaged Scotland’s reputation.
From pariah to partner
Libya is marking the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s seizure of power in a military coup. The inscrutable leader, once a pariah, has returned to international respectability, following his decision first to cooperate in the Lockerbie investigation and, after Saddam Hussein was overthrow in 2003, to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs.
Sanctions were lifted, designation by the U.S. government as a state-sponsor of terrorism was lifted, and diplomatic ties with the U.S. were restored. Western oil companies returned, with Britain’s BP in May 2007 signing an exploration and production agreement – BP’s biggest ever – with Libya’s state oil company.
Witnessing the signing in Sirte, Libya, was Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.
Libya is a member of the United Nations Security Council for the 2008-9 period, Gaddafi currently chairs the African Union, and his former foreign minister will be president of the U.N. General Assembly for the year-long session beginning next month.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow