More than two years after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice, it was announced that the convicted Lockerbie bomber would be released on humanitarian grounds. A few days later he dropped his appeal. Then today the Times reports that Hilary Clinton has warned of an international backlash if Megrahi is released early.
It’s no secret the Libyans didn’t want their man to die in prison. They made it clear to the UK authorities that if he did, relations between the two nations would be badly damaged, which would place the $900 million joint venture between BP and the Libya Investment Corporation in jeopardy.
Despite deep mutual mistrust, the two sides managed to fix up an uneasy quid pro quo in negotiations behind closed doors. The convicted mass-murderer would be released on compassionate grounds if he promised to drop his appeal. Plainly the authorities were not too bothered about concealing the fact that a deal was done: the two announcements came almost simultaneously.
This suits both sides: the Libyans get Megrahi back while the British authorities are spared the potential fiasco of his being acquitted, which would inevitably lead to calls for a public inquiry into Lockerbie, not to mention the possibility of having to give Gaddafi back the $2.7 billion he paid in compensation.
But if the Scottish government buckles to US pressure and denies Megrahi’s early release after he agrees to terminate his appeal, the Libyans will have been double crossed – not for the first time in this saga. If that happens, it will be BP who end up paying the price, which is why the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill may yet find a way to refuse the US interference and go ahead and release Megrahi anyway on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
Whatever happens when the authorities finish their dithering, Megrahi’s story is just a sideshow in the hunt for justice over Lockerbie. An innocent man shouldn’t die in prison, but justice for the victims of the bombing is also important. The dropped appeal would have been a chance to answer questions both about the bombing of Flight 103 and about whether there was a subsequent miscarriage of justice.