Analysis: Distrust debunks Lockerbie deal theories

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi (second from left) arrives in Tripoli, Libya.
An act of compassion or an undercover deal? What is the truth about the release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi from the Scottish prison where the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was incarcerated?

Defending his controversial decision Monday at an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill argued that it was a case of “Do as you would wish to be done by.” He would not have let out al Megrahi, he said, on a prisoner transfer. That would have been against the promises given to the U.S. authorities and to the Lockerbie victims’ families that the Libyan would serve his full life term in Scotland. But when MacAskill, a member of the Scottish National Party-run government, was told by doctors and prison authorities last December that al Megrahi had terminal and untreatable cancer the situation changed. He released al Megrahi, he said, strictly on grounds of compassion — the kind of compassion the terrorists had failed to show the Lockerbie victims. Even MacAskill revealed anger over the “inappropriate” hero’s welcome al Megrahi received on his return to Tripoli, Libya, insisting Scottish authorities were promised that would not happen. It was that scene, with Scottish saltires being swirled among the crowd, which has intensified the international fury and which led many Scottish parliamentarians to insist it was not done in their name and that MacAskill had brought shame on the Scottish nation. But MacAskill made other assertions which were of crucial interest to those with political and national interests in the affair. It was, he said, his own personal decision. There was nothing involved in his decision but compassion. No politics, no diplomacy, no economic interests.

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That will have pleased UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has enjoyed seeing his bitter foes in the SNP suffering the slings and arrows of assorted critics and who has kept uncharacteristically quiet through the whole affair. But will it be enough to quiet the suspicions of those like senior U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, who has spoken of suspicions that there is a trade and oil deal to benefit Britain lurking somewhere in the shadows and called for an independent investigation into the decision to release a mass murderer The full truth will probably never emerge until those involved come to write their memoirs. But there has been plenty to keep the conspiracy theorists going. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi made a point of thanking Brown as well as the Scottish government for al Megrahi’s release. His son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a man who wants to see foreign capital flooding in to modernize Libya, has said that al Megrahi’s future had always been on the table in trade talks with the likes of British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson. Scotland runs its own justice system but the UK remains responsible for foreign affairs. It emerged that MacAskill sought guidance from the UK Foreign Office that al Megrahi’s release would not contravene any UK anti-terrorism measures.

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He was not only told that it wouldn’t but was encouraged to process al Megrahi’s request. And Brown, having met Gadhafi at this year’s G8 in Italy, had written to “Dear Moammar” in advance of any release of al Megrahi urging in vain that it be handled quietly and with discretion. But what leads many seasoned political observers to conclude there was no secret deal cooked up by the British and Scottish authorities, pledging lucrative oil and development contracts in return for the release, is a simple, brutal political truth. The Labour-led UK government and the Scottish administration led by the Scottish National Party are deep and bitter political enemies. Neither would ever embark on an enterprise like that because neither would trust the other not to rat on the deal for political gain. So no new contracts, no new jobs for Britain Not necessarily. These things often work in less obvious ways. It is more an aura of understanding than a couple of crisp clauses on paper. Gadhafi has declared: “This step (al Megrahi’s release) will certainly be positively reflected in all fields of cooperation between the countries.” And their trade has already been expanding. Note too that while some leading U.S. figures have been vitriolic, President Barack Obama has kept his critical remarks to a respectable minimum. The release, he said was “a mistake,” the Tripoli scenes were “highly objectionable.” Obama, like Brown and others in the European Union, is keen to continue the process of remolding the former pariah state which renounced terrorism in 2003 into a respectable member of the world family. They want to demonstrate that there is a reward for going straight. And they don’t want Gadhafi’s oil, an estimated untapped 44 billion barrels of it, going to the Russians instead. The families of Lockerbie victims will naturally greet such thoughts with horror, exclaiming: “What about morality” But in a complicated world, governments often have to leaven their morality with long-term realpolitik in the wider interests of their people. For the moment several interested parties have what they want from the situation, despite the furor. Gadhafi, fresh from his first G8 invitation and about to address the U.N. General Assembly for the first time, has presented to his people in al Megrahi’s return what they see as a talismanic proof of Libyan clout. Brown, without having to be directly involved in the decision, has gained the goodwill of a crucially-placed oil state with business to come.

The Scottish National Party has demonstrated to a wider world which might otherwise never have noticed, that there is a Scottish government which is something more than a UK local authority. Those who are suffering are the Lockerbie victims’ families. And they have already done more than enough of that.