Great Britain is on the defensive as criticism intensifies over the release from prison of the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people. British newspapers have been rife with speculation that the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who is said to be suffering from terminal prostate cancer, was motivated by lucrative Libyan oil deals and even anti-Americanism rather than compassion for a dying man, as was originally claimed.
Megrahi, who had served only eight years of a life sentence, was released from a Scottish prison on humanitarian grounds on August 20. He returned home on a private jet to an officially orchestrated hero’s welcome in Libya.
Megrahi’s release has been widely condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, condemned the release as “wrong” and the product of “completely nonsensical thinking.” In the United States, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the scenes of jubilation in the Libyan capital of Tripoli as “outrageous” and “disgusting.” And the families of the victims are understandably dismayed.
The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, said his decision to release the mass murderer was prompted by “humanity.” Speaking at a packed press conference in Edinburgh, MacAskill said, “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic.”
But MacAskill’s critics are not buying the claim that MacAskill was acting alone, especially after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi praised British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as “my friend” and thanked the British government and even Queen Elizabeth for their part in securing Megrahi’s freedom.
The London-based center-right Daily Telegraph said MacAskill’s decision was more about asserting Scottish nationalism than about Scottish altruism. “But you only had to listen to MacAskill to understand the perspective from which he was operating, and it owed little to either the rights of the victims or the finer points of Scots law. He seemed to regard each question as a challenge to maximise use of the word ‘Scottish’ in the answers. Scottish values, Scottish justice, Scottish compassion, Scottish way of doing things. … To which he might have added Scottish naivety, Scottish shame.”
In a separate commentary titled “Lockerbie Bomber: An Ill-Conceived Gesture,” the Daily Telegraph says anti-Americanism was also a factor in Megrahi’s release. “The Scottish Nationalist executive in Edinburgh yesterday waved its little fist at the might of America and showed it would not be pushed around. For it is hard to see the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi on compassionate grounds as anything other than an ill-conceived gesture of national assertiveness. Both President Obama and, more forcefully, Hillary Clinton had pleaded with the executive not to do it. How good it must feel in Edinburgh to cock a snook at the superpower.” The Telegraph then points out that the United States is Scotland’s largest source of inward investment, with more than 500 American-owned businesses employing 90,000 Scottish people.
The mass-circulation Daily Mail, in a story titled “Blair, ‘Blood Money’ and a Lockerbie Deal: Talks with Gaddafi Hours Before BP Agreement,” said Megrahi’s release was all about oil. “Tony Blair has been accused of agreeing a ‘blood money’ deal involving the Lockerbie bomber with Colonel Gaddafi just hours before BP unveiled a £500 million oil contract. The then prime minister laid the foundations for the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi during a meeting with the Libyan leader in a desert tent two years ago. The pair thrashed out a controversial prisoner transfer deal just before BP chairman Peter Sutherland announced the firm was investing $900 million — about £545 million — to search for oil in Libya. If the firm strikes rich, it could be worth £13 billion.”
The oil link was reiterated by Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was quoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as confirming that Megrahi’s case was raised during talks over oil and gas. “In all commercial contracts, for oil and gas with Britain, (Megrahi) was always on the negotiating table,” Islam said.
The center-left Independent, in an articled titled “Lockerbie: Now It’s Payback Time,” said British businesses were poised for a Libyan windfall following Megrahi’s release. The paper quoted Lord David Trefgarne, a former trade minister who now chairs the Libyan-British Business Council, as saying there would be “benefits” for British firms from the decision to release Megrahi. “Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they’ll move a bit more swiftly,” Trefgarne said. The paper also says the oil giant BP is expected to now be able to push forward at speed with its geological study of Libay’s Sirte basin, an offshore area the size of Belgium.
So far the British government has insisted that the decision was a matter solely for the Scottish government. However, both Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband have refused to say whether they supported or opposed the Scottish government’s action.
In an article titled “Lockerbie Release Casts Dark Shadow over Britain’s Ties with U.S.,” the London Times quoted an unidentified senior American official as saying it was disingenuous for the British government to “claim that responsibility lay only with the devolved Scottish government” because the release of al-Megrahi had wider foreign policy implications. The paper says “although diplomats say that Washington understands the constitutional independence of the Scottish Justice Ministry,” some U.S. policymakers are known to believe that the British government has deliberately “walked by the other side of the street,” possibly in the hope of earning a vast trade pay-back from a country with the biggest proven oil reserves in Africa.
Meanwhile, some British news outlets have hit upon what may turn out to be the real story behind this story, which is the almost universal perception that U.S. President Barack Obama has been a helpless bystander in the Megrahi case.
The leftwing Guardian, in an article titled “U.S. Fury Grows over Release of Lockerbie Bomber,” somewhat mockingly highlighted the fact that Obama has no influence whatsoever over Libya. It said “part of the U.S. anger is because Libya snubbed a plea by Obama not to award him [Megrahi] a hero’s welcome.”
Moreover, a BBC story titled “U.S. Powerless as Libyan Bomber Freed” is laced with schadenfreude at America’s diminished international position under Obama. It says “now he [Megrahi] has been allowed home to die and the Americans had no power to stop it. All they could do was lobby hard and use strong diplomatic language like “mistake,” “inappropriate,” and “absolutely wrong.” Again: “Not that the Americans have any control over that. They could only ask nicely and hope the Libyans oblige.” Hitting home the point that a Libyan dictator now has the upper hand over the most powerful country in the world, the BBC says: “Having got what he wanted, it is up to Col Gaddafi whether he helps the American government out of its difficulty.”