The release of Abd al Basit al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 continues to attract ‘revelations’ in the media, the latest of them in the Telegraph and Vanity Fair.
The Telegraph story is based on an American diplomatic report, released by WikiLeaks, of a meeting at which the American ambassador in London was told by a Foreign Office official that the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell had written to the Libyan minister outlining the procedure for obtaining compassionate release. The Telegraph interprets this as undermining British government claims that it was not complicit in the release of Megrahi, and that the decision to free the convicted terrorist was taken by the Scottish executive alone.
But the American diplomatic report, which I am inclined to accept as genuine, does not directly support the Telegraph interpretation, indeed states the contrary:
HMG has made clear to the Libyans, to Embassy London and to the media that it will take no official position on Megrahi’s early release, but will leave the decision – whether through compassionate release or the PTA – to the devolved Scottish government.
As for Rammell’s letter, the American report unfortunately does not tell us how it came to be written. It was dated October 2008, shortly after Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but nearly a year before he was released. I would guess, though I have no evidence, that it was in reply to an enquiry from the Libyan minister. If I’m right, the interpretation put on it by the Telegraph is not convincing. The British government has been asked for detail and has, apparently, replied that it does not comment on leaked documents. Now would be a good moment to start.
The Vanity Fair story is more sensational, if true. According to ‘a senior official’ (it doesn’t say whether this refers to a Scottish or UK, or indeed even American or Libyan official), the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, indicated to Jack Straw
that the Scottish government would drop its objections if the parliament in Westminster would engineer an amendment to the Scotland Act, which sets out the constitutional arrangements between the Scottish government and the larger United Kingdom.
Asked about this by Vanity Fair, Straw refused to comment; Alex Salmond’s spokesman described it as ‘complete and utter garbage without a shred or scintilla of truth’.
There are a number of reasons for doubting the story. One is the lack of trust, indeed political enmity, between the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh and the Labour government in London. Another is the claim that the Scottish government was prepared to ‘drop its objections’. As the Vanity Fair article itself mentions elsewhere, the Scots strongly objected to the possibility that Megrahi might be covered by the prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya. Their objections were deep rooted and publicly declared as a political commitment as early as 2007, though they proved irrelevant in the final outcome.
Sorry as I am to see this added to the long list of unanswered questions about the Megrahi affair, I do not see that it can be resolved by the British or Scottish governments, though a rebuttal from the British government wouldn’t be out of place. Vanity Fair should never have printed a story of such importance based on a single unnamed source.