Sunday, 18 July 2010

The Sunday Herald on the BP/Megrahi furore

[The Sunday Herald contains a long article by James Cusick. The following are excerpts:]

In the current open season on oil company BP, a core of senators have switched their attentions from the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to BP’s exploration deals with Libya – and allegations that the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi helped BP secure a $900 million deal.

In his visit to Washington next week, Prime Minister David Cameron will discover if the senators are merely showboating ahead of their mid-term elections or whether they are serious about dissecting the role of international diplomacy and back-stage politics in the rehabilitation of oil-rich rogue states. For one leading energy consultant in London, who has commercial ties to oil and gas companies operating in the Middle East, showboating would be the preferred option.

“If Capitol Hill really wants the full, dark picture, they’ll need to do more than call in BP to answer a few questions,” he says.

“They might start with George Bush, Tony Blair and Condi Rice. Jack Straw would help; so would Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador to the United States. As well as BP, they should talk to Shell, Marathon, Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips, all of them. And, if they’ve time, Colonel Gaddafi’s son Seif and Musa Kusa, Libya’s former head of intelligence [and currently Foreign Minister]. This is a Pandora’s Box.”

Sir Nigel will be alongside Cameron in DC this week, just as he was alongside Tony Blair during his years as the British ambassador to the European Union, and later as Blair’s foreign policy adviser. Ahead of Cameron’s visit, it fell to Sir Nigel to state the coalition’s position on the release of Megrahi. “The new British Government is clear that Megrahi’s release was a mistake,” he said.

For Libyan diplomats, that will have come as a surprise. “Nigel and Tony” are regarded in Tripoli as the two figures who helped bring Megrahi home.

Operating behind the scenes and in direct contact with Gaddafi’s closest aides, it was Sir Nigel who – on Blair’s direct orders – helped broker the secret talks in 2003 between the UK and the US that eventually ended Libya’s exile and coaxed Gaddafi into ending his ambition to build a nuclear arsenal. After he and Condoleezza Rice, then the US national security adviser, had met Libyan officials, it was Sir Nigel who chaired a series of meetings in London with Libyan diplomats which sealed the deal.

In March the following year, Sir Nigel was with Blair when he visited Gaddafi’s tented complex in the desert outside Tripoli. One news paper report noted that it was 5,573 days since Pan Am Flight 103 had exploded over Lockerbie. Blair was the first British prime minister to visit Tripoli since Churchill, and his job was to confer international respectability on the Gaddafi regime and to re-open the commercial opportunities in one of the world’s least explored oil territories. (...)

Lurking in the background, however, was one unresolved issue: one that regularly presented tribal difficulties for Gaddafi in internal Libyan politics. This was Megrahi’s imprisonment in Scotland. (...)

After Blair’s meeting with Gaddafi in 2004, pressure increased on both the UK and US governments to create the necessary conditions for further commercial activity. But Megrahi was still an unresolved part of the Libyan jigsaw – and, felt many in the Foreign Office, a vital one. Quietly, the prospect of a prisoner transfer deal crept on to the ­diplomatic agenda.

Gaddafi’s son Seif has said that Megrahi’s release was a constant reference point in any trade talks. And in a meeting with Megrahi after he returned to Tripoli last year, Seif told him: “When British interests came to Libya, I used to put you on the table.”

According to a US embassy source in London, Seif would “scare the hell out of Capitol Hill” if he gave a witness testimony. It would not be what he had to say about BP – but what he could say about anyone from any country, including the US, trying to secure new and lucrative business with Libya. (...)

When Blair eventually returned to Tripoli in May 2007 to sign the so-called deal in the desert – a major step towards Libya’s international rehabilitation – it was Sir Nigel who had designed the “memorandum of understanding”. This included, for the first time, an outline of a legal agreement on prisoner transfer. On the same day that Blair and Gaddafi shook hands, both Blair and Sir Nigel travelled to the Libyan city of Sirt to watch BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward and the Libyan National Oil Company’s chairman Shokri Ghanem sign an exploration deal worth $900m.

Hayward knew he was delivering something big for BP. “Our agreement is the start of an enduring long-term and mutually beneficial partnership with Libya,” he said. “With its potentially large resources of gas, favourable geographic location and improving investment climate, Libya has an enormous opportunity to be a source of clean energy for the world.” (...)

BP expected the prisoner transfer agreement to be dealt with quickly by Westminster. But shortly after the signing ceremony between Hayward and Ghanem – which, although it looked formal enough, was still only an outline deal – Libyan officials were told by UK lawyers that there might be a problem with returning Megrahi to Tripoli. Transfer or release of prisoners from a Scottish jail was not a matter for Number 10 but for the devolved government at Holyrood.

According to a senior UK judicial source, when the prospect of delays in any prisoner transfer was suggested to Libya, it was dismissed as nonsense. One Libyan source claimed there would be no delay; that “Nigel and Tony have assured us”. This source also believed Megrahi would be back in Libya within six months.

But BP had begun to appreciate the Scottish problem. By the late autumn of 2007, the company was said to be worried about the slow progress being made in concluding the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

Last week BP officially acknowledged this concern. “We were aware this could have a negative impact on UK commercial interests, including the ratification by the Libyan Government of BP’s exploration agreement,” the company said.

BP admits it lobbied the government, seeking to speed up the process of getting the transfer agreement into law. However, it denied it tried to intervene in the case of Megrahi in particular.

But Professor Black, the man who helped engineer the case at Zeist, says: “The prisoner transfer agreement and the potential release of Megrahi back to Libya have always been one and the same thing. It is disingenuous of BP to say they were different. Megrahi was always the name on the table. He was the only high-profile prisoner that mattered.”

Last year, Megrahi was released from jail on compassionate grounds by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary. MacAskill said the Libyan was in the final stages of prostate cancer and was expected to die within three months. He added that he was bound by Scottish values to release him and allow him to die in his home country. The transfer agreement – which the Scottish Government had criticised as unconstitutional because it had not been consulted – did not figure in the minister’s deliberations. (...)

The senate committee in Washington will care little about the constitutional in-fighting between Edinburgh and London. The former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has said that if Westminster had wanted to stop Megrahi leaving, it had the power to do so. “The last time I looked, Scotland wasn’t independent and doesn’t have powers over foreign policy,” said Bolton.

Although Sir Nigel says the UK Government believes the release of Megrahi was a mistake, he does not say if he thought it was mistake.

[Also in the Sunday Herald is an article by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill. It reads in part:]

My decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last August was, as I made clear at the time and many times since, the right decision for the right reasons.

It was a decision based entirely upon the application for compassionate release that I was duty bound to consider. As I said then, it was not a decision I chose to make, but one I was obliged to make as Scotland’s Justice Secretary.

Megrahi was sent home to die according to the due process of Scots law, based on the medical report of the Scottish Prison Service director of health and care, and the recommendations of the parole board and prison governor – all of which have been published by the Scottish Government.

However, I was also faced with another, separate decision, in respect of Megrahi. That was the application before me for a transfer from Scotland under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement signed by the UK and Libyan governments.

I rejected that application because the US Government and the families of Lockerbie victims in the US had been led to believe such a prisoner transfer would not be possible for anyone convicted of the atrocity.

The Scottish Government has always totally opposed the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated between the UK and Libyan governments. The memorandum that led to the Agreement was agreed without our knowledge and against our wishes.

That is why we chose to reveal the secret talks between the then Labour Government and the Libyans, as soon as we learned of the “deal in the desert” between Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi, with the First Minister making a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the issue as far back as June 2007. (...)

Let us be clear: the issues now being raised in the United States about BP refer to the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated by the governments of the UK and Libya, and so have nothing to do with the decision on compassionate release, which was a totally different process based on entirely different criteria.

And the Scottish Government had no contact from BP in relation to Megrahi.

We would always look to assist any properly constituted inquiry – and indeed we very much support a wider UK public inquiry or United Nations investigation capable of examining all the issues related to the Lockerbie atrocity, which go well beyond Scotland’s jurisdiction. That remains the case.

In terms of the new UK Government’s position on the Megrahi issue, we have known the Prime Minister’s opinion since last August, and he knows the due process of Scotland’s independent legal system was followed.

We also now know Professor Karol Sikora has rejected news paper reports that misrepresented his comments about Megrahi’s condition.

I said last August that Megrahi may die sooner or may die later than the three-month prognosis the experts then deemed to be a reasonable estimate of life expectancy – that is something over which we have had no control.

What is certain is the man rightly convicted of the Lockerbie bombing remains terminally ill with prostate cancer.

[Mr MacAskill's opinion that Mr Megrahi was "rightly convicted of the Lockerbie bombing" is one that many, including the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, do not share.]


  1. Kenny's repeated statements that Megrahi was "rightly convicted", and the complete airbrushing out of the appeal we know he was pressurised to abandon, are beginning to stick in my throat.

    Was it really a coincidence the three-month prognosis appeared just three months before the appeal was due to resume before the court? If Megrahi had stuck it out and refused to withdraw the appeal, would he have been released anyway? Enquiring minds doubt it very much.

    And if he'd refused to withdraw it, would he be a free man by now? Probably.

  2. Rolfe is probably right on this one.

    Apart from the staged circus of indignation of the US political elite, who are only self-indulging themselves, the rest of the polity only wants Lockerbie to die away. The last thing they'd want Mr Megrahi to do is pop himself on a LAA flight to London and hand himself in.

    Synthetic indignation is best enjoyed on a cold stomach with a long draught of soda-water.