A mother who lost her daughter in the Lockerbie attack has condemned the “cold, callous and brutal” behaviour of British ministers after WikiLeaks documents revealed how they secretly advised Libya on securing the successful early release of the bomber.
Documents obtained by the Daily Telegraph show that a Foreign Office minister sent Libyan officials detailed legal advice on how to use Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s cancer diagnosis to ensure he was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.
The Duke of York is also said to have played a behind-the-scenes role in encouraging the terrorist’s release.
Susan Cohen, whose only daughter Theodora, 20, was one of 35 students from Syracuse University who died, said: “I am not surprised by this latest news but I am glad it is out there.
“I almost feel like laughing. This confirms everything that we have been saying, that business and oil deals were being done behind the scenes.”
Mrs Cohen attacked the Scottish Government’s request for families of the victims to contribute in the lead-up to the decision, noting that the new documents suggest ministers had already made up their mind to approve Megrahi’s return home.
“How cruel that was to put the families through that,” she added. “It shows how cold, callous and brutal this whole affair has been.
The Libyans closely followed the advice which led to the controversial release of Megrahi – who was convicted of the murder of 270 passengers on Pan Am Flight 103 – within months of the Foreign Office’s secret intervention.
The Daily Telegraph today publishes more than 480 American documents detailing international relations with the Libyan regime over the past three years.
The documents – obtained by the WikiLeaks website and passed to this newspaper – provide the first comprehensive picture of the often desperate steps taken by western Governments to court the Libyan regime in the competition for valuable trade and oil contracts.
Any perceived political slight on the part of the Libyans often leads to western companies losing lucrative contracts with Gaddafi’s erratic behaviour a major problem in maintaining good relations.
Last year, the British Ambassador is recorded as telling his American counterparts in Tripoli that he had to negotiate with the Libyans “on their terms” and should “not be frightened by the name Gaddafi”.
The documents disclose in detail how British ministers and officials were desperate not to allow Libyan anger over the ongoing imprisonment of Megrahi to derail the growing commercial relationship between the two countries.
Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was imprisoned in 2001 for life after being found guilty of bombing Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.
For several years, the Libyans pressed for the terrorist to be returned to the north African country under a prisoner transfer agreement that was being negotiated.
According to American officials, Mr Blair was suspected of securing trade deals after agreeing to include Megrahi in the agreement.
However, Megrahi was imprisoned in Scotland – where the offence occurred – and any decision on his release was for the Scottish authorities although Westminster drew up the relevant legislation.
In October 2008 – as negotiations on the prisoner transfer agreement were ongoing –Megrahi was diagnosed as suffering from cancer.
It can now be disclosed that within a week of the diagnosis, Bill Rammell, a junior Foreign Office minister, had written to his Libyan counterpart advising him on how this could be used as the grounds of securing al-Megrahi’s compassionate release from prison.
Rob Dixon, a senior Foreign Office official, met with the American Ambassador to brief him on the letter. An official American memo on the meeting states: “FCO Minister for the Middle East Bill Rammell sent Libyan Deputy FM Abdulati al-Obeidi a letter, which was cleared both by HMG and by the Scottish Executive, on October 17 outlining the procedure for obtaining compassionate release.
“It cites Section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act of 1993 as the basis for release of prisoners, on license, on compassionate grounds. Although the Scottish Crown informed the families of the Pan Am 103 victims in an email October 21 that the time frame for compassionate release is normally three months from time of death, Dixon stressed to us that the three month time frame is not codified in the law.”
Mr Dixon went on to disclose to the Americans that Jack Straw, the then Justice Secretary, had also spoken to Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister about the case which had led Government officials to believe that the terrorist would be released.
The minute of the meeting with the Americans records: “Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond told Jack Straw that he will make the final decision in this case. Salmond told Straw that he would make the decision based on humanitarian grounds, not foreign policy grounds; Dixon told us HMG has interpreted this to mean that Salmond is inclined to grant the request.”
Mrs Cohen said the revelations cast doubt on the repeated assurances by Mr Salmond’s administration that the treatment of Megrahi was based solely on medical considerations.
“Megrahi’s release was never about compassion,” said Mrs Cohen. “I didn’t buy it then, I don’t know how anybody did, and I don’t buy it now.
“They were looking for an opportunity to release him and they were going to grab it one way or another.”
However Mr Salmond said the revelations confirm that his administration acted according to its public pronouncements on the affair while Tony Blair’s Government was behaving duplicitously.
“The cables … show that the former UK Government were playing false on the issue, with a different public position from their private one,” said a statement released by the Scottish First Minister’s office.
The Tories said the disclosures suggested Labour had misled the public and issued a series of unanswered questions about the release of the convicted bomber in August 2009.
Andrew Bridgen, a Tory MP, said: ‘There is now clear evidence that the last Labour Government misled the British public about their involvement in the release of al-Megrahi. Former Ministers should now come clean and apologise.”
Following the meeting, the American Ambassador reported back to his superiors in Washington said that the release of al-Megrahi could “occur sooner rather than later” and that Whitehall officials were handling sensitive negotiations with the Libyans on the issue.
The disclosure of the secret Foreign Office advice to the Libyans is set to spark renewed calls for the British government to appear before the US Senate to justify its role in the bomber’s release.
In September 2009, it emerged that Mr Rammell had told the Libyans that neither the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister wanted to see al-Megrahi die in prison. However, government ministers strenuously denied that they had become involved in the release.
David Miliband, the then Foreign Secretary, said that there had been “no double dealing”.