By a Newsnet reporter
In a sensational development US diplomatic cables, leaked to The Guardian newspaper by Wikileaks, show that the last Labour government fully supported the early release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
Megrahi was released in 2009, on grounds of compassion, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Britain feared “harsh and immediate” consequences, according to the leaked cables, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa.
“The Libyans have told HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] flat out that there will be ‘enormous repercussions’ for the UK-Libya bilateral relationship if Megrahi’s early release is not handled properly.” wrote the London charge d’affaires Richard LeBaron in a cable to Washington in October 2008.
The revelations exonerate the Scottish government which has faced an unrelenting barrage of criticism for releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The Labour party heaped opprobrium on First Minister Alex Salmond and called for the resignation of Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
Labour politicians claimed publicly that the decision to release Megrahi was an embarrassment to Scotland whilst privately the leaked documents show the Labour leadership were in fact favouring his release.
The cables show that the UK government was aware of dire repercussions should Megrahi die in a Scottish prison:
“GOL officials have warned U.K. Emboffs in demarches here that the consequences for the U.K.-Libya bilateral relationship would be “dire” were al-Megrahi to die in Scottish prison. Specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all U.K. commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties and demonstrations against official U.K. facilities. GOL officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk.”
The documents also reveal that the US were privately suspicious of Tony Blair’s ‘Deal in the Desert’ in 2007. The cable states:
“Saif al-Islam implied that former UK PM Tony Blair had raised Megrahi with the Libyan leader in connection with lucrative business deals during Blair’s 2007 visit to Libya. [Note: Rumors that Blair made linkages between Megrahi’s release and trade deals have been longstanding among Embassy contacts. End note.]”
The Guardian reported documents as claiming that: “Anger with the British persists in some American circles, and UK ministers, Labour and Tory, have attempted to distance London from the release insisting it was purely a Scottish decision.”
Public reaction is sure to be one of disbelief at the way in which the Labour party have sought to make political capital out of the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed in Britain.
Further cables from the US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, show that the US position was to resist voicing opposition to Megrahi’s release at the time so as not to risk Libyan retaliation against US interests.
Mr Cretz warned the US itself should keep quiet in order to protect its interests: “If the [US government] publicly opposes al-Megrahi’s release or is perceived to be complicit in a decision to keep al-Megrahi in prison, [America’s Libyan diplomatic] post judges that US interests could face similar consequences.”
The silence presumably included US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who later claimed that the decision was wrong and had denied justice to the families of the dead. The US “continues to categorically disagree with the decision” said Clinton. The documents suggest that both the Labour UK government and their US counterparts have unleashed false, and seemingly co-ordinated, furore about the Scottish government’s decision since the announcement.
Recently a group of US senators, supported by Labour MSP Richard Baker, pushed for Kenny MacAskill to answer to the US Senate’s Foreign Relation’s Committee regarding his decision. However many of the accusations levelled against the Scottish Justice Minister by the US politicians included clear falsehoods and misunderstandings based on UK media reports that included innuendo about the Scottish government being influenced by oil giant BP.
The cables also make clear that bribes in the form of ‘treats’ were offered to the Scottish government by Libyan diplomats but were refused point blank. Further attempts at smearing the Scottish government in relation to seeking finance from Qatar in return for the release of Megrahi have been emphatically denied by the Qatari MFA Minister of State for International Cooperation, Khalid Al-Attiyah, who said “That is ridiculous. It was not necessary to offer money. It was all done within Scottish law. We offered no money, investment, or payment of any kind.”
UK PM David Cameron will also now stand accused of trying to make political capital out of the tragedy as he publicly announced at his party conference in Scotland that the Scottish government’s decision was “wrong” and that “nothing like that must ever happen again”.
First Minister Alex Salmond is said to have been shocked by a public letter sent by FBI Director Robert Mueller over the release of Megrahi and described it as “over the top” given that President Obama had already commented on the decision. The cables show US officials acknowledging that the Scottish government acted in good faith at all times and had nothing to gain whereas the UK government, according to the leaked documents, gained massively from Megrahi’s illness and subsequent release.
The cable states:
“Salmond reiterated that he and his government “had played straight” with both the USG and UK Government, but implied that the UK Government had not. During the meeting, which occurred before the Mueller and Mullen statements, he said he wanted to move beyond the Megrahi issue and deepen Scotland’s relationship with the USG.”
The cables also reveal that the reaction to the release was more severe than the Scottish government had anticipated and that Scottish opposition parties were trying to capitalise on it for political gain:
“Meanwhile, local Scottish opposition politicians are using the issue to call into question the SNP government’s credibility and competence.”
“Naysmith underscored that Scotland received “nothing” for releasing Megrahi (as has been widely suggested in the UK and U.S. media), while the UK Government has gotten everything – a chance to stick it to Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) and good relations with Libya.”
Far from embarrassing Britain the Scottish government is now shown to be the only western government involved in the affair to have behaved with honour and respect. The truth, now out, is that a politcal conspiracy on both sides of the Atlantic, to use the Scottish government as a scapegoat, has been exposed.
The leaks will call into question the integrity of many within the Labour party in Scotland and suggest that the dignity of Scotland is secure in the hands of First Minister Alex Salmond and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.