Deal or no deal? The riddle as al-Megrahi awaits fate

Author: By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

Al-Megrahi, 57, has prostate cancer and perhaps only three months to live. His
fate is in the hands of Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary in the Scottish
National Party (SNP) administration in Edinburgh. His eagerly-awaited
announcement has made huge waves around the world, sparking a diplomatic
rift between Scotland and the United States and allegations of ?dirty deals?
involving the British Government, keen to foster good relations with Libya?s
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a one-time international pariah who came in from
the cold after renouncing nuclear weapons and who possesses an invaluable
negotiating card ? his country?s oil reserves.

Al-Megrahi, anxious to spend his final days with his family, has become a pawn
in a complex game of international chess. Suspicions that a deal has already
been struck were fuelled by reports that he has been sending possessions to
Libya from his specially-built cell in Greenock Prison.

In London, ministers dismiss conspiracy theories about a classic fix involving
the UK and Scottish governments and Libya. They insist that the decision is
purely a judicial one for the Scottish authorities. And yet there seems to
be a coalition of overlapping interests pushing for the complicated case to
be closed.

For its part, the British Government is reluctant to see the disclosure of
further documents from foreign sources which al-Megrahi?s legal team want to
be made public. ?There are a number of vested interests who have been deeply
opposed to this appeal continuing as they know it would go a considerable
way towards exposing the truth behind Lockerbie,? claimed Christine Grahame,
an outspoken SNP member of the Scottish Parliament who has met al-Megrahi
several times in prison. She claims that ?new information? would make clear
al-Megrahi had nothing to do with the bombing. It might have come to light
during an appeal in which the Crown is seeking to lengthen his 27-year
minimum sentence.

Ms Grahame said that after the Libyan Government paid $803m in compensation to
families of the bombing?s victims, the US and Britain were allowed to invest
£800m in Libya?s oil industry. ?There are dirty deals here,? she said.

The affair is traumatic for the families of the 270 people who died when Pan
Am flight 103 exploded over the Dumfriesshire town of Lockerbie on 21
December 1988, including 189 Americans. Some fear the release of al-Megrahi
would mean the truth about Britain?s worst terrorist atrocity being buried
forever. While relatives of many of the US victims believe the former Libyan
intelligence officer is guilty, several of their Scottish counterparts are
not convinced.

They would be alarmed if his release meant the end of their long quest.

With the spotlight on Edinburgh, London?s role has been largely eclipsed. The
man who may have started the ball rolling is Tony Blair, on a visit to Col
Gaddafi?s famous tent in Libya in 2004, when they broke the ice and agreed
to negotiate a prisoner transfer agreement. Another option is for al-Megrahi
to serve the rest of his sentence in a Libyan jail, although this is thought
less likely than release on compassionate grounds.

What diplomats politely call ?choreography? was stepped up last month when
Gordon Brown discussed the case with Col Gaddafi at their first meeting, in
the margins of a G8 summit in Italy. Their talks also covered oil prices,
with Mr Brown expressing concern that the latest spike could choke off
global economic recovery. Downing Street is adamant that the Prime Minister
stressed he could not intervene in a judicial decision. But one Whitehall
source admitted yesterday: ?It was clear this case is very, very important
to the Libyans.?

No plot would be complete without an appearance by Lord Mandelson. Although Mr
Brown?s talks may have been more significant, the ubiquitous Business
Secretary discussed the al-Megrahi case with Col Gaddafi?s son during his
recent holiday in Corfu.

Yesterday Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, used rather undiplomatic
language to make a last-minute appeal to Mr MacAskill for al-Megrahi to
remain in prison. She said: ?I knew a lot of these families. I talked with
them about what a horror they experienced. I just think it is absolutely
wrong to release someone who has been imprisoned based on the evidence about
his involvement in such a horrendous crime.?

There are suspicions in Scotland that Ms Clinton is playing to the domestic
gallery. Alex Salmond, the SNP First Minister, insisted: ?There will be no
consideration of international power politics or anything else. It will be
taken on the evidence in the interest of justice.?

The intense speculation has fuelled criticism of the SNP administration, which
has had an unfortunate debut on the world stage. Mr MacAskill has been
widely criticised for meeting al-Megrahi in prison on 5 August. That made it
personal, and gave the rumour mill about a deal another turn.

Al-Megrahi?s release would provoke new demands by Lockerbie families for an
independent inquiry into the bombing. But they are not confident of securing
their long-standing aim. ?We are back where we started 21 years ago,? said
Rev John Mosey, whose daughter Helga, 19, died in the attack.

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