The Daily Star
Friday August 20 2010
By Michael Glackin
On this day last year, in the company of fellow journalists and a plethora of television crews from the UK, the US and the Middle East, I was ushered into a small, stuffy room in the bowels of the Scottish Government Building in Edinburgh.
Inside the overcrowded basement, Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, announced to us that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the worst terror atrocity in British history – the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people – had just been released from prison and was en route to a waiting jet that would take him home to his family in Libya.
Megrahi, whose conviction in 2000 had been questioned by many, including some of the victims’ families, was released on “compassionate grounds” because he was suffering from “terminal cancer” and had just three months to live.
When I asked MacAskill if he believed Megrahi was innocent he insisted the Libyan was guilty. He solemnly intoned that Megrahi now faced “a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”
Well, we’re all going to die. But Megrahi was supposed to die within 12 weeks of MacAskill’s somber pronouncement. Indeed, this was the sole reason for his “compassionate release” under Scottish law.
One year on, Megrahi is of course alive and, if not entirely well, he is yet expected to remain among the living for another year at least. Indeed one respected cancer specialist predicted that he would be around to enjoy the London Olympics in 2012 and perhaps even the next World Cup in 2014. It’s the greatest recovery since Lazarus.
The decision to free the Lockerbie bomber was always contentious, but in the last year it has descended into farce, enveloped by conspiracy theories about oil deals, political double-dealing, cover-ups, and now bogus medical evidence.
Megrahi was released after the Scottish prison service’s director of health and care, Dr. Andrew Fraser, announced that his cancer was resistant to “any treatment.” But it has since emerged that the cancer specialists most familiar with Megrahi’s case were not consulted before his release, and that one of the specialists who did see him was actually being paid by the Libyan government.
Moreover, it has also emerged that a standard chemotherapy medicine, Taxotere, was not administered to Megrahi. The prisoner couldn’t receive the treatment inside prison, but the medicine could surely have been administered at a local hospital.
No one appears to have an answer for how doctors diagnosed Megrahi’s cancer as untreatable when he hadn’t received chemotherapy, but it suited the overall plan of the British and Scottish governments to ignore this fact in their desperation to return him to Libya. And ignore it both governments surely did because Megrahi’s application for compassionate release, made just weeks before he was freed, actually referred to the possibility of his undergoing chemotherapy to treat the cancer once he was free.
The medical revelations fit in neatly with conspiracy theorists who believe trade – Libya has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the UK in the past year – and oil are at the heart of Megrahi’s release.
In March 2007 Premier Tony Blair agreed to the so-called “deal in the desert” with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This included provisions for a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) between the two nations, designed solely to repatriate Megrahi. During the visit, Blair also witnessed the inking of a $900 million gas and oil exploration deal between oil giant BP and Tripoli.
The Scottish government had asked the British government to exclude Megrahi from the PTA, but in late 2007 BP successfully lobbied Blair, warning that failure to agree to the PTA on Libyan terms could hit British commercial interests – or more specifically BP’s exploration deal with Libya. which was awaiting ratification. Indeed, a leaked letter revealed that then-British Justice Secretary Jack Straw wrote to MacAskill in December 2007 and told him that it was “in the overwhelming interests of the UK” to let Megrahi return to Libya.
BP insists it never mentioned Megrahi when lobbying for the PTA, but of course there was no need to since there was no one of similar significance among the 26 Libyans held at the time in British prisons.
The Scottish government insists it “had no contact from BP” while considering Megrahi’s release, and of course Megrahi was not released under the PTA, but freed on compassionate grounds.
Will we ever get to the truth in this affair? Prime Minister David Cameron called for an independent inquiry into the Megrahi release while he was in opposition, but has refused to countenance one now that he is in power.
So to mark the anniversary of Megrahi’s release, let me offer an alternative. Megrahi was due to have an appeal heard against his conviction in 2009, which he abandoned to facilitate his release. Megrahi’s lawyers planned to introduce documents that were not made available at Megrahi’s trial. Chief among these was evidence from the US Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing by Iran to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by an American warship, killing 290 people. Many believe Syria's role in the bombing was swept under the carpet after Syrian president Hafez Assad supported the US led alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in early 1991. Megrahi was not formally indicted for the crime by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.
If Megrahi were allowed to launch his appeal from Libya it would perhaps go some way toward shedding light on what happened the night Pan Am 103 went down, as well as the process surrounding his conviction and discharge from prison. The evidence against Megrahi was dubious, but the reasons given for his release were equally so.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.