The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has created a storm of controversy over why he was let out and who ordered his release.
Meanwhile, the multinational BP has been searching for oil off the coast of Libya. The company believes it could create £15bn in new revenue in a 20,000-mile area in the west of the country. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, took a series of high-profile trips to Libya in 2004 and 2007, to develop Britain’s trading relationship with Libya, following the removal of United Nations sanctions. During the latter visit, BP signed a huge exploration deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation. Part of the negotiations included the moving of al-Megrahi via a prisoner transfer agreement under which prisoners could serve out sentences in their home countries. Jack Straw, the justice secretary, revealed this decision in a letter to his Scottish counterpart. He cited “wider negotiations” and the “overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom”.
The letters from Straw – to his Scottish counterpart, Kenny MacAskill – date from March to December, 2007 and made headline news in Britain recently after copies were leaked by a Whitehall source. The timeframe and content of the letters indicate that Britain decided in 2007 to make the Lockerbie bomber eligible for a return to Libya, after talks stalled between Libya and BP over a huge oil exploration deal. Weeks later, both sides ratified the Libyan oil deal potentially worth nearly $25bn (£15bn).
Straw wrote: “I had previously accepted the importance of the al-Megrahi issue to Scotland and said I would try to get an exclusion for him on the face of the agreement. I have not been able to secure an explicit exclusion”. The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance the [prisoner transfer agreement] should be in the standard form and not mention any individual.”
Al-Mehagri’s name was repeatedly brought up by the Libyan officials and according the letters released, was a major stumbling block in the negotiations. Within six weeks of the government climbdown, Libya had ratified the BP deal. The prisoner transfer agreement was finalised in May this year, leading to Libya formally applying for al-Megrahi to be transferred to its custody. According to comments by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s son, which aired on the Libyan television station Al-Mutawasat, he lobbied repeatedly for the return of former intelligence agent Abdel Baset al-Megrahi during trade talks with Britain. “In fact, in all the trade, oil and gas deals which I have supervised al-Mehagri was there on the table”.
“At all times we talked about the [prisoner transfer agreement]. It was obvious we were talking about him. We all knew that was what we were talking about. “People should not get angry because we were talking about commerce or oil. We signed an oil deal at the same time. The commerce and oil deals were all with the [prisoner transfer agreement].”
His account is confirmed by other sources. Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya and a board member of the Libyan British Business Council, said: “Nobody doubted Libya wanted BP, and BP was confident its commitment would go through. But the timing of the final authority to spend real money was dependent on politics.”
British business executives had made no secret of their intense lobbying for a prisoner transfer treaty proposed by Blair and Col Gadhafi and finally ratified by Britain and Libya in April. Before al-Megrahi’s cancer diagnosis, that treaty was seen as the most likely avenue for his return to Libya. But his cancer, and a finding by medical specialists that he was not likely to live for more than three months, cleared the way for his release on compassionate grounds. Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “This is the strongest evidence yet that the British government has been involved for a long time in talks over al-Megrahi in which commercial considerations have been central to their thinking.”
With Britain running out of energy and Tripoli needing cash, British energy giants are scrambling to exploit vast unexplored natural resource fields in Libya. The country is believed to possess some 42bn barrels of proven oil reserves and a similar abundance of natural gas. British energy giants Royal Dutch Shell, BG and BP have signed preliminary deals with the Libyan government to help develop the national oil and gas sector. Britain’s trade with Libya could soar following the release of the Lockerbie bomber, as the North African country embarks on a massive building programme. In the first five months of 2009, UK exports to Libya were already up by 48 per cent to £165.4m on the same period in 2008.
The implication that Britain’s Labour government brokered al-Megrahi’s freedom in return for oil profits has explosive potential in trans-Atlantic relations, as well as in British politics. The cosy relationship of the Government, big business and foreign nations with dubious human rights records, is once again at the heart of the matter. Is it possible for an independent, democratic foreign policy to exist, in an international environment based upon commercial enterprise and capitalist expansion?
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This post was written by Christopher Vasey