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WikiLeaks: UK Advised Libya on How to Free Lockerbie Bomber

Feb 1, 2011 – 9:30 AM
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Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates Contributor

LONDON -- The British government secretly advised Libya on how to secure the early release of Lockerbie plane bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, according to leaked diplomatic papers from the U.S. Embassy in London.

The documents also suggest that Prince Andrew, the fourth in line to the throne, played a behind-the-scenes role in obtaining the former Libyan intelligence officer's freedom.

One diplomatic dispatch, obtained by the WikiLeaks website and published today in the British newspaper The Telegraph, states that within a week of Megrahi being diagnosed with "inoperable and incurable" prostate cancer in October 2008, then U.K. Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell sent a letter to his Libyan counterpart advising how this news could be used to secure Megrahi's compassionate release from jail in Scotland.

Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, is the only person ever sentenced in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988. He was convicted in 2001 of 270 counts of murder for masterminding the attack. But the Scottish government released him on compassionate grounds in August 2009 after doctors reported that he would likely die of cancer within three months.

He is still alive today and living in Libya.

At the time of Megrahi's release, the then Labour Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that the decision was made solely by the autonomous Scottish government. But the new WikiLeaks papers suggest that authorities in London were secretly coaching Libya on how to exploit Megrahi's illness and navigate the Scottish justice system.

According to the cable sent by the London embassy, Rob Dixon, a senior Foreign Office official, briefed the American ambassador in London in late October 2008 on Rammell's letter.

"Bill Rammell sent Libyan Deputy [Foreign Minister] Abdulati al-Obeidi a letter, which was cleared both by [Her Majesty's Government] and by the Scottish Executive, on October 17 outlining the procedure for obtaining compassionate release," the confidential paper reads. "It cites Section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act of 1993 as the basis for release of prisoners, on license, on compassionate grounds."

Dixon went on to reveal that then U.K. Justice Secretary Jack Straw had also spoken to Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, about the case. "Salmond told Straw that he would make the decision based on humanitarian grounds, not foreign policy grounds," the document states. "Dixon told us [that Her Majesty's Government] has interpreted this to mean that Salmond is inclined to grant the request."

Soon after the meeting, the U.S. ambassador reported back to Washington that Megrahi's release could "occur sooner rather than later."

The Foreign Office today said in a statement that Prime Minister David Cameron, who took office last May, believed "Megrahi's release was a mistake and the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was solely made by the Scottish executive."

Another cable released by WikiLeaks also throws doubt on claims made by the previous Labour government that British commercial interests did not influence Megrahi's release. (Several U.K.-based oil companies now have operations in Libya.) That paper, sent by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, in August 2009, noted that when Megrahi arrived in the country, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi thanked Britain's trade envoy, Prince Andrew.

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"[Gadhafi] went on to thank his 'friend [Gordon] Brown,' the British Prime Minister, his government, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Andrew, who 'against all odds encouraged this brave decision,'" the memo read. "[Gadhafi] noted that the U.K. efforts would positively affect 'exchange' between the two countries."

London-headquartered oil firm BP admitted last year that it had lobbied the British government in late 2007 over a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. The petroleum giant said it had voiced concerns that the slow pace of negotiations risked wrecking an offshore drilling deal with Gadhafi. However, BP said it never raised the Libyan intelligence officer's case while talking to ministers.
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