David Cameron’s visit to Washington this month collided with the resurrection by some American Senators of the controversy over the release in August 2009 on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government’s Justice Secretary of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted (quite possibly wrongly) of responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Many, not all, American relatives of Lockerbie victims, and their Senators, are furious, not only that al-Megrahi was released, but also that he’s still alive, 11 months after being released on the grounds that he had only three months to live. This seems to the Americans, and some others, to strengthen their suspicion that the mass murderer was actually released in exchange for a lucrative Libyan oil drilling contract being awarded to BP (BP… All together now: ‘Booooo!’).
Herein lies one of several Lockerbie mysteries. In 2007 the then British government agreed that al-Megrahi should not be excluded from the scope of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) being negotiated with Libya, as the UK side had originally demanded. Jack Straw, then UK Justice minister, publicly acknowledged that this ‘concession’ (which implied that al-Megrahi could be transferred to serve the rest of his prison sentence in Libya) was motivated by British commercial interests in Libya, including the BP contract. But it was part of the original UN-approved agreement on the management of the Lockerbie suspects that if either of them was convicted, as al-Megrahi was, he would serve his sentence in the UK (in practice meaning in Scotland, as the whole process was to be conducted under Scottish law). The terms of the agreement, formally approved by the UN Security Council in resolution 1192 of 27 August 1998, are set out in a letter from the UK and US Acting Permanent Representatives to the UN, circulated in the UN as document S/1998/795 of 24 August 1998. The requirement that any sentences must be served in the UK could hardly be clearer:
“If found guilty, the two accused will serve their sentence [sic] in the United Kingdom.”
In the event, one of the two accused was acquitted. Al-Megrahi was convicted. Clearly any transfer of al-Megrahi to serve part of his sentence in Libya under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement so laboriously negotiated with the Libyans by Messrs Blair and Straw would have contravened the arrangements approved by the Security Council in 1999.
When Blair and Straw made their concession to the Libyans under which al-Megrahi was not after all to be excluded from the PTA, did they know, and remind the Libyans, that whatever the PTA said, under the original agreement approved by the UN, al-Megrahi couldn’t be transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya?
There are plenty of other murky questions still to be answered about the whole affair, but this must surely be one of them. (An additional puzzle is why the embattled Scottish First Minister and Justice Secretary, Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill, never ones to miss a trick, have not seized the opportunity to skewer Tony Blair and Jack Straw by pointing out from the beginning that their PTA could never have been used to transfer al-Megrahi to a Libyan prison.)
I have examined some of the other intriguing questions arising out of this controversial case, currently exercising presidents, prime ministers, first ministers and senators, in a post on my own blog.
Update (July 26th): Today’s Guardian publishes my letter on the same point. The article above provides details of the key documents from which it is sourced, and links to them.