[What follows is excerpted from an article by Oliver Miles (former UK ambassador to Libya) published on the Mail Online website on this date in 2009:]
From Libya there is always something new. So said Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. And for the past two weeks, my telephone has not stopped ringing with friends, acquaintances and the media seeking my views on the ‘Megrahi affair’ – a continuing storm that few people even pretend to understand.
Many people have been bemused by Westminster and Tripoli’s tentative pas-de-deux, asking why Britain should negotiate over the fate of a convicted Lockerbie bomber. Was there some kind of deal? Was it oil, was it trade?
Others find it difficult to understand why so much effort has been expended in building links with Gaddafi – or why Libya should court Britain.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s acknowledgement that the prospect of trade and oil deals with Libya played a part in the Government’s handling of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al Megrahi has heightened the intrigue.
One British motivation is clear: Libya, dirt poor in everything except oil and gas, has been an important energy producer for half a century. It sells £40billion of oil per year – mainly to Europe – and buys from every trading country in the world. Britain has become a major supplier.
Furthermore, Libya is that rare thing, a ‘rogue state’ which sponsored terrorism before being brought back into the international fold by diplomacy.
Tripoli favours links with Britain for several reasons. Many Libyans speak English, visit the UK for healthcare and education and are comfortable with London as an international crossroads. And Britain is the home of multinational companies, such as BP and Shell, with which the Libyans would like to do business.
For 15 years Libya has been slowly emerging from its status as international pariah, and dealing with London is regarded there as a staging post to its ultimate goal – the normalisation of relations with the United States.
There is also the matter of Megrahi, an important man from an influential tribe – the same as Abdullah Sanusi, the head of Libya’s internal intelligence service (equivalent to MI5 and MI6). Sanusi is related to Gaddafi by marriage and tribal solidarity is a strong link. Megrahi’s close family and tribal elders would have been putting pressure on the Libyan leader to do something about bringing their man home.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Libya has actively sought to deal with the international community, often using Britain as a diplomatic bridgehead to the US, which was in the past much more aggressive. It ended support for terrorism, paid compensation to victims on a vast scale and abandoned illegal programmes of weapons of mass destruction.
All this has made Libya increasingly attractive to the West. (...)
Gaddafi views Al Qaeda as the biggest internal threat to his secular regime and it has made at least one attempt to assassinate him. Anxious to protect his own position, he was prepared to share intelligence on Al Qaeda – and even to make some limited progress on human rights. As a result, the United Nations lifted sanctions in 2004, paving the way for American and international oil companies to return.
Lockerbie has been central to Libya’s international rehabilitation. Under arrangements worked out in 1999 by Robin Cook and the Foreign Office, involving a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands, Megrahi was convicted of responsibility for the destruction of the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in 1988 which killed 270 people.
There have always been doubts about the evidence against him. Some believe, as I do, that the Libyans delivered him for trial only because they felt he was unlikely to be convicted.
Having read the legal judgment of his trial, I defy anyone to conclude from it that his guilt was proved beyond reasonable doubt. Yet his first appeal, in 2002, was dismissed. He always insisted on his innocence and only abandoned his second appeal in the hope of a return to Libya.
Most of Libya’s changes had already been achieved by the time Tony Blair made his first visit to Tripoli, in 2004. But Blair is a man with a keen eye on a photo opportunity and was even then thinking of his ‘legacy’.
On his second visit, in 2007, he launched a number of initiatives, including assisting the return of BP to Libya.
He also unwittingly laid the foundations for the current furore by proposing a Prisoner Transfer Agreement to allow British prisoners convicted in Libya to serve their sentences in Britain and vice versa – an arrangement which exists between many countries.
The Libyans saw it as an instrument to get Megrahi home.
But Blair seems conveniently to have overlooked the fact that Megrahi’s fate rested with the devolved government in Scotland. Given the bad relations between the Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalists, this was more than a formal problem.
Blair also overlooked an even bigger obstacle. Under the Lockerbie trial agreements, any sentence arising from it had to be served in Scotland (the Libyans insisted on this since they feared Megrahi might be handed to the Americans and executed).
The Lockerbie agreements are not properly documented, but the commitments were well known to the Foreign Office, the Americans and the Libyans. Tony Blair may not have bothered about them as he didn’t like inconvenient advice from officials.
As these difficulties emerged, the Libyans began to feel that they had been led up the garden path. And when it became known last year that Megrahi was terminally ill with prostate cancer, Tripoli began to issue not-very-veiled threats that if he died in jail relations between Britain and Libya would suffer.
When his condition deteriorated, two things happened: he inexplicably abandoned his appeal, and a story was leaked to the BBC that Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was to grant compassionate release.
The reaction in the US was fevered amid rumours of a deal involving business and oil. The Americans have taken a line which they would call robust and I would call vindictive.
Some reactions have been foolish (Obama’s suggestion that Megrahi should have been put under house arrest in Tripoli), and others outrageous.
The demand by Obama and Brown that Megrahi should not receive a ‘hero’s welcome’ was a classic example of demanding that water should run uphill.
I believe Megrahi’s release was influenced more by the Scottish government’s desire to assert its independence rather than by any deal. Others may disagree, but time will tell.