After last year's release of the Libyan Lockerbie mastermind Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's on compassionate grounds caused an internatioal outcry, Great Britain took two measures in an attempt to achieve closure on the December 1988 bombing of a U.S. airline that resulted in the deaths of 270 people.
The release strongly offended the families of the victims, particularly as Al-Megrahi, whose release was justified by announcements that he had less than three months to live, is still kicking. The tie betweem the release and a substantial oil contract was long suspected. This was the conclusion of a report by four US Senators from New York and New Jersey.
Sir Gus O Donnell, Britain's most senior civil servant, issued a report coupled with the release of government documents that reached the conclusion that "policy was progressively developed that Her Majesty's Government should do all it could, while respecting devolved competencies, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish government for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's release under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) or for release on compassionate grounds."
In simple English, this meant that the Foreign Office and British ministers showed the Libyans how to work the system, or as the wife of one of the Lockerbie victims put it, the British acted as attorneys for the Libyans.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement at last weekend's Munich Security Conference in which they "strongly agreed" that the decision to release the Libyan had been a mistake.
The British release of the documents was agreed to in Cameron's first meeting with Barack Obama and was designed to assuage American anger. The British may have believed that since the Labor party that had handled the release had since been voted out of power and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had left politics, the issue was moot.
One thing is clear from the report: The previous attempt by the British government to claim that the release was totally a decision by the Scottish government was in less than candid. David Cameron lambasted the former government for misleading the public when it claimed that it took no position on the release. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is still claiming that while the government was interested in an oil deal, it did not apply any pressure on the Scottish government, while the Scottish government claims that it acted independently and in accordance with Scottish law.
But this claim is being challenged and the challenge is substantiated in the O'Donnell reports. The Scottish government is charged with seeking a deal that would get it off the hook in the Somerville case. In this lawsuit, a Scottish prisoner's claim that his human rights were violated in a Scottish jail - because the antiquated Scottish prisons lacked the plumbing for toilet facilities and he and other inmates were forced to relieve themselves in buckets that they emptied every morning - was upheld by the courts. Under British law, a new act of Parliament can retroactively overturn a judicial decision. Since Scotland faced a £50 million payout to the bucket brigade prisoners, a promise to do this was a substantial sweetener.
Scotland also wanted the authority to grant licenses for firearms. It was willing to barter its consent for compassionate release of the Libyan in return for these inducements.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative elder statesman and former defense minister who served as Scottish Secretary at the time of Lockerbie, said that the documents demonstrated that the Brown government was "up to its neck in this shoddy business… It must therefore share responsibility with the Scottish government for one of the most foolish and shameful decisions in years."
Chuck Schumer, the senior U.S. senator from New York, claimed that the documents merely confirmed what was long suspected in the United States. His colleague, Robert Menendez -U.S. senator from New Jersey and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee - called upon David Cameron to launch an independent inquiry as "the UK and Scottish governments' repeated denials, even when confronted by specific and compelling evidence, get more ludicrous by the day."