LONDON – Britain released documents on Tuesday detailing confidential exchanges over the Lockerbie bomber’s release – letters it hoped will end speculation that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi’s freedom was used to sweeten economic and political deals between Libya and the U.K.
But the documents are more likely stir more anger in the United States, which was opposed to freeing al-Megrahi all along.
The letters show that British authorities deferred to Scotland on whether to release the only man convicted in the 1988 airline bombing, but those same officials also repeatedly stressed the importance of growing U.K.-Libyan interests. There was no evidence that British officials warned of diplomatic fallout with the United States should al-Megrahi be released.
Al-Megrahi, 57, was convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people – many of whom were American college students returning for Christmas.
Scotland freed al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds Aug. 20 after doctors said he had three months to live due to advanced prostate cancer.
Britain has regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are responsible for local issues but retains power over national issues such as foreign affairs and the military.
As the British and Scottish governments released more than a dozen documents, Libya celebrated the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Col. Moammar Gadhafi to power – an extravaganza meant to celebrate the return of the former pariah state into international fold after terrorism.
British talk shows late Tuesday buzzed with suggestions that al-Megrahi’s release was no coincidence ahead of Gadhafi’s lavish celebrations and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The released letters from 2007 to 2009 showed that British officials warned Scotland that excluding al-Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement could damage U.K.-Libyan relations.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw wrote to his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill in July 2007 that it would be possible to exclude al-Megrahi from the prisoner transfer agreement – which would have eliminated one of the ways al-Megrahi could have been freed if he had not become sick. But Straw later changed his view, writing on Feb. 11, 2008, that he opposed excluding al-Megrahi from such a release.
“Developing a strong relationship with Libya, and helping it to reintegrate into the international community, is good for the U.K.,” Straw said in that letter to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. “Libya is one of only two countries to have ever voluntarily and transparently dismantled its weapons of mass destruction program. Having sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, it is now an important partner in the fight against terrorism.”
Straw then stressed the importance of the prisoner transfer agreements but said ultimately such a release – which could have seen al-Megrahi being transferred to a jail in Libya – would be up to Scotland.
“I do not believe that it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion into the PTA (prisoner transfer agreement),” Straw wrote.
The releases follow claims in the British press that the British government struck a deal with Libyan authorities to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement because that was in Britain’s best interests at a time when a major oil deal was being negotiated.
Britain has growing economic interests in Libya – from oil exploration to financial services. Last year, British imports from Libya topped some 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion).
But the British government has repeatedly denied its role in the release and said there was no pressing commercial deal.
Straw, whose letters were released Tuesday, denied suggestions that economic considerations had an effect on the decision to free al-Megrahi.
Anger has been percolating on both sides of the Atlantic since al-Megrahi flew home to a hero’s welcome in Libya.
The families of some American victims have said they were disgusted by the bomber’s release, which was also sharply criticized by President Barack Obama, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Britain’s Foreign Office, as part of the disclosures Tuesday, said in one letter to Scotland’s government that there was no categorical commitment given to the United States to keep al-Megrahi jailed.
In an Aug. 3 letter, Ivan Lewis, Britain’s Middle East minister, told MacAskill that “while the U.S. pressed the U.K. to provide a definitive commitment on the future imprisonment” of al-Megrahi, Britain “declined to do this on the grounds that it did not wish to bind the hands of future governments.”
He said, at the time of al-Megrahi’s 2001 conviction, ministers could “not rule out the possibility that our relations with Libya may one day change, as indeed they have.”
In a second letter, sent to Scottish government official George Burgess in July, the Foreign Office told him that Britain “did not give the U.S. an absolute commitment” to keep al-Megrahi jailed in Scotland.
Parts of both letters, including the name of the official within the Foreign Office’s Middle East and North Africa desk who wrote the July note, were redacted.
Some British families of Lockerbie victims reacted with fury, but for different reasons than American families. Pamela Dix from Surrey in southeast England, who lost her brother Peter, said she was surprised and frustrated by the letters.
“I fully support moves to bring Libya back into the international fold, but not at the expense of the truth in this case,” she said. “A court found him guilty, but his appeal was abandoned and now we might never know what really happened.”
In order to be considered for compassionate release, a regular feature of Scottish justice for dying inmates, al-Megrahi had to drop his appeal against his conviction.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has repeatedly said the decision to free al-Megrahi was Scotland’s. He also said he had told Gadhafi at the Group of 8 meetings in Italy in July that his administration had no role in the matter.
“I made it absolutely clear to him then that this was not a decision, the future and fate of Mr. al-Megrahi, that we as the United Kingdom could take,” the Financial Times quoted Brown as saying. “It was a matter for the Scottish Executive, and it was their decision, and their decision alone.”
Downing Street spokesman Simon Lewis said Brown would be speaking with Obama about the bomber’s release in the coming days.
Brown’s office said not all correspondence between Libya and Britain would be released – only documents deemed to be relevant by the British or Scottish governments.
Scottish authorities decided last month that al-Megrahi would be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya, rejecting the option of sending al-Megrahi home under the prisoner transfer agreement.
In a separate document, Abdulati Alobidi, Libya’s Minister for Europe, said junior Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell visited Tripoli in February and that Rammell told him that Britain did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison – but that it was Scotland’s decision.
A top Libyan official said Tuesday that al-Megrahi’s health was rapidly deteriorating since his release and he had been hospitalized.
Bob Monetti, whose brother Richard, a 20-year-old college student from Cherry Hill, N.J., was among those killed, said the letters showed what families of the victims thought all along.
“The fix has been in for awhile,” he said. “The UK has put incredible pressure on Scotland to do this thing, and they finally caved in.”
Associated Press Writers David Stringer in London, Ben McConville in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alfred De Montesquiou, in Tripoli, Libya and Geoff Mulvihill, Mount Laurel, N.J. also contributed to this report.