BP and the Lockerbie Bomber: Why the Conspiracy Is False

The U.S. Senate’s error-riddled letter demanding an inquiry into BP’s role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber is little more than crude political grandstanding, says Alex Massie.

Oil and water may not mix, but oil and conspiracy certainly do. Add terrorism and a flamboyant African dictator to the mix and it’s not, perhaps, surprising that so many people continue to think that BP hatched some nefarious plot to release the Lockerbie bomber from his Scottish jail cell a year ago.

As Prime Minister David Cameron visited Washington this week, the controversy over Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s release returned. At its most fundamental level it alleges that the British and Libyan governments conspired to release Megrahi and in return BP would win oil contracts in Libya’s Gulf of Sidra that may be worth as much as $20 billion to the beleaguered company.

Since the Lockerbie affair was a matter for Scots law, the State Department or BP could no more influence Scottish decisions by lobbying London than they could by petitioning Timbuktu or Montevideo.

Unfortunately, there is no conspiracy. This minor detail has not prevented U.S. senators from demanding an investigation. Their letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an inquiry is, alas, riddled with errors, fatally undermined by ignorance, and, ultimately, little more than a crude piece of populist showboating. No surprise, therefore, that it should be signed by Sen. Chuck Schumer. Playing along with this charade, President Obama has said he wants “facts” too, even though the facts are, in fact, plain to see.

Lloyd Grove: David Cameron Is America’s New FrenemyEven on their own terms, the senators’ complaints make no sense. They begin: “We write to urge the State Department to fully investigate the disturbing news reports linking BP to the deal that allowed for the release of convicted Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.”

As they acknowledge themselves, Megrahi was released, as is consistent with Scots law, on compassionate grounds because he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. That is, it had nothing to do with any oil deal. They continue: “Not only has this terrorist lived long past the three-month death prognosis that cleared the way for his release, but it has been revealed that doctors who gave the prognosis were paid by the Libyan government.”

It is true that Megrahi has survived longer than expected, and true too that this can be considered embarrassing. It is not true that doctors paid by Libya played any part in this process. Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary who sanctioned Megrahi’s release, never saw the report submitted by Dr. Karol Sikora, the doctor on the Libyan payroll who has since claimed Megrahi could live for several more years (or die next month). The medical reports submitted to the justice secretary were compiled by Dr. Andrew Fraser, the senior doctor in the Scottish Prison Service. These drew on the findings of at least two other independent consultants.

Undaunted by facts, the senators move into overdrive: “The question we now have to answer is, was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits? Answering this crucial question will help complete our understanding of the Scottish court’s decision to release this murderer and will help us understand if BP might use blood money to pay claims for damage in the Gulf of Mexico.”

No Scottish “court” made any decision to release Megrahi. It was a matter for the Scottish justice secretary and him alone. The senators, in demanding that the State Department “pressure London,” seem unable to grasp that while Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, the independence of the Scottish legal system was guaranteed by the Act of Union in 1707. And since the Lockerbie affair was a matter for Scots law, the State Department or BP could no more influence Scottish decisions by lobbying London than they could by petitioning Timbuktu or Montevideo.

As Prime Minister Cameron said in Washington on Tuesday: “It was the Scottish government that took that decision. They took it after proper process and what they saw as the right, compassionate reasons. I just happen to think it was profoundly misguided.”

Nor has BP traded justice for profits in Libya’s Gulf of Sidra because—and this cannot be spelled out too often—Megrahi’s release had nothing to do with any deal to include him in the terms of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated between London and Tripoli in 2007. The PTA, as the name suggests, does not release a prisoner; it transfers him (or her) to a prison in his home country. In other words, Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds in 2009 has nothing to do with the PTA in which BP has been accused of meddling.

BP was concerned that excluding Megrahi from a PTA—which was what the Scottish government desired—might harm its commercial interests in Libya. For the Libyans’ part, they insisted that Megrahi be included in the deal, arguing that it would be absurd for the only high-profile Libyan in British custody to be formally excluded from the provisions of the PTA. After protracted negotiations, London acceded to Tripoli’s request and there was no clause in the PTA excluding Megrahi. That concession did advance BP’s commercial interests in Libya, but it did little to nothing to increase the likelihood that Megrahi would be transferred to a Libyan prison, let alone released. That decision remained one to be made in Edinburgh, not London.

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In fact, when Libya applied for Megrahi to be transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in his home country, MacAskill rejected that application. He did so because this was consistent with long-standing Scottish policy that Megrahi should not be transferred and because he believed that an understanding had been reached with the United States that Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scotland, not Libya.

Until he contracted prostate cancer, Megrahi’s only hope of release was to win his appeal against his conviction. No illness equals no release on compassionate grounds. It really is that simple. That he has outlasted his prognosis says much more about medical certainty than it does about MacAskill, the British government, or BP.

The pity of the matter is that Megrahi’s cancer meant that he was unlikely, even on the most optimistic prognosis, to live to see his appeal concluded. That also helped persuade him to drop his appeal and, alas, ensure that there will be no full or final reckoning of the Lockerbie case. Megrahi may well have lost his appeal—though the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission found there were sufficient grounds for it to progress—but the absence of any further inquiry means that the last mysteries of Lockerbie are likely to remain mysterious for many years to come.

That, in the end, is a much graver worry than whether doctors’ estimates of Megrahi’s cancer proved wrong or whether a Scottish politician made a mistaken decision.

Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.