Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2010, Page 23

Special Report

Did British Petroleum Encourage the Early Release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi?

By Andrew Killgore

Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence of destroying Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 18, 1988, killing 270 people, including 189 Americans. Last year Megrahi, suffering from prostate cancer, was released by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds after doctors decided he had as little as three months to live.

Now, the American media (which paid almost no attention to the Lockerbie trial, which took place in the Netherlands under Scottish law) is in a small uproar because the currently unpopular BP (British Petroleum) is being accused of urging Megrahi's early release in order to obtain an oil drilling lease in Libya's Gulf of Sidra. According to the Financial Times, on July 16 BP acknowledged that it had been concerned over a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but that it did not specify Megrahi. In the same article, Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador to Washington, said he believed Megrahi's release had been a "mistake."

With BP being blamed for the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, American politicians are ready to believe the worst about one of Britain's most profitable companies. The same Financial Times article reported that Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for a July 29 committee hearing—now postponed to September—to examine what Kerry's fellow senators call "deep circumstantial evidence" that Megrahi was released in exchange for an oil contract for BP. The committee said it would call government experts and BP officials to testify.

The families of British victims of the Lockerbie tragedy will find the gung-ho American actions surprising in light of the fact that the British media, unlike its U.S. counterpart, covered the Lockerbie disaster well—and, as a result, many, perhaps most, Britons do not believe that Megrahi is guilty. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had ruled that Megrahi may have suffered "a miscarriage of justice." In fact, had Megrahi not fallen ill, there was certainly the possibility that his pending appeal might have resulted in a verdict of "not guilty," or at least "not proven," as allowed under Scottish law, on retrial. Megrahi dropped his appeal upon his release.

Many, perhaps most, Britons do not believe that Megrahi is guilty.

Dr. Jim Swire, a distinguished physician, former British army officer, and explosives expert who lost his daughter Flora at Lockerbie, found the narrative of Megrahi's guilty verdict "a cock and bull story." Dr. Robert Black, former professor of criminal law at Edinburgh University and creator of the idea of trying Megrahi and his co-defendant Lamen Fhimah in the Netherlands under Scottish law, thought similarly. Dr. Hans Koechler, United Nations observer at the Lockerbie trial, thought that there were no grounds for finding Megrahi guilty.

All Libyans believed that Megrahi is innocent. When he arrived home in Tripoli, he received a hero's welcome. Poorly informed Americans who witnessed his arrival in Tripoli saw his reception as a cynical defiance of convention.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called on President Barack Obama on July 20, repeated an earlier statement that the release of Megrahi was a mistake. In fact, the conviction of Megrahi for bombing Pan Am 103 seems to be the real mistake.

Andrew Killgore is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.