Lockerbie bomber’s release sparks new controversy

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi (second from left) arrives in Tripoli, Libya on August 21.
British Justice Minister Jack Straw confirmed Sunday that he had tried — and failed — to keep the Lockerbie bomber out of an agreement to send Libyan convicts back to the north African nation to serve their sentences there.

But he insisted that the concession to Libya was irrelevant to the release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi from prison this month, since the bomber was freed because he had cancer, not as part of a deal with Libya. Straw was responding to newspaper allegations that the British government allowed al Megrahi’s release in order to smooth the way for a British oil and gas company to win exploration rights in Libya. Al Megrahi, 57, was serving a life sentence for bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people, including 189 Americans. The Sunday Times claimed that Libya had insisted that al Megrahi be freed before it would approve an enormous contract with BP.

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BP announced the deal in May 2007, promising an initial investment of $900 million to explore two Libyan areas — one the size of Belgium and the other as large as Kuwait. But Libya did not approve the deal until after London dropped its objection to releasing al Megrahi, the Sunday Times alleged. It said Straw had written to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill in December 2007, saying “wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a crucial stage” and that he was dropping his effort to exclude al Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement “in view of the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom.” MacAskill had jurisdiction over al Megrahi because he was jailed in Scotland. CNN has not confirmed the contents or the existence of the letter.

But the Foreign Office emphatically denied al Megrahi was freed to boost British business interests. “Any suggestion that al Megrahi’s release is related to a trade deal is completely without foundation,” a Foreign Office representative told CNN, declining to be named in line with policy.