The Lockerbie Brouhaha: Gaddafi's Bargaining Chip

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Libya TV via Reuters TV

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, left, hugs convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi in Tripoli

Fury over the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from a Scottish jail last Thursday is growing, with the scandal now threatening to engulf British officials, and follow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on his visit to New York next month for an address to the U.N. General Assembly.

At the heart of the brouhaha are questions over whether Britain decided to release Megrahi in order to gain favorable treatment from Gaddafi on multibillion-dollar energy and defense contracts. London says there was no deal — and that the decision to release the convicted terrorist was made by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds because Megrahi, the only person jailed for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet in which 270 people died, has terminal cancer. But a British businessman with close ties to Libya says that while there may not have been a clearly defined backroom deal between British and Libyan officials, London knew that Libya was likely to retaliate if Megrahi died in jail. "Had he died in prison contracts might have been suspended," said the businessman, who did not want his name used because he does not want to jeopardize his ties with the North African nation.

Scottish parliamentarians hurried home from their vacations on Monday, in order to question Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill about whether British officials were involved in the decision to free Megrahi. MacAskill insists he alone made the decision. Megrahi has just a few months left to live, according to medical reports cited by MacAskill. That hasn't stopped Libyan officials from making plans to have the Libyan man as the "main guest" at Gaddafi's splashy celebrations on Sept. 1 to mark the 40th anniversary of the leader's bloodless coup.

A letter earlier this month to MacAskill from British minister Ivan Lewis, whose brief includes Libya, suggests that London was encouraging Megrahi's release. "I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application in accordance with the provisions of the prisoner transfer agreement," said the letter, according to Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper on Monday. Britain's Foreign Office told the London-based Sunday Times newspaper that Lewis had simply responded to MacAskill's request for information about legal agreements between the British and Libyan governments, rather than "making representations on whether Megrahi ought to be transferred to Libya."

Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam — who has no government position now but is a possible successor to his father — told Megrahi on the plane home from Scotland that "you were on the table in all commercial, oil and gas agreements that we supervised in that period," according to the transcript of their conversation aboard the flight shown to Britain's Sunday Telegraph. Britain's Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has confirmed that Megrahi's status was mentioned when he met twice with Seif during the past few months, once on the Greek island of Corfu, where the men were both vacationing. But Mandelson says he told Seif that Megrahi's release was for Scotland to decide.

In an attempt to shield the British government from the scandal the office of Prime Minister Gordon Brown released a letter the British leader had written on Thursday to Gaddafi urging to "act with sensitivity" on Megrahi's arrival. By contrast, Megrahi was given a hero's welcome at Tripoli airport by hundreds of ecstatic Libyans — normally barred from holding mass demonstrations — and on Friday embraced Gaddafi in the leader's tent. Those scenes ignited fury in Washington, with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs calling Megrahi's reception "disgusting." FBI Director Robert Mueller wrote to MacAskill on Saturday that his decision to free Megrahi had been "a mockery of the rule of law."

Still, the incident is unlikely to cause any deep rift between London and Washington. That's because British and American politicians have spent five years intensely wooing Gaddafi, in an attempt to win hugely lucrative oil and gas deals, as well as contracts to sell arms and build infrastructure. Oil companies are keen to improve the terms of their contracts with the Libyan government, which has imposed some of the toughest conditions in the region in their production-sharing agreements. Just a week before Megrahi's release, Senator John McCain led a group of senators on a trade visit to Gaddafi, and tweeted afterwards: "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his 'ranch' in Libya — interesting meeting with an interesting man."

European leaders and the U.S. need that "interesting man" as their political ally, too. Officials in Switzerland on Friday apologized to Gaddafi for "the unjust arrest" of one of his seven sons, Hannibal, and his wife, in June last year, for allegedly beating their servants in a Geneva hotel. Gaddafi had retaliated by blocking its oil exports to Switzerland and withdrawing about $6 billion from Swiss banks.

Both U.S. and European officials are keen to limit Gaddafi's ties to Russia, which is negotiating with Libya to establish a military base there. And E.U. countries also badly need Gaddafi's cooperation in tightening the flow of illegal migrants, many of whom cross the Mediterranean from launching points on the Libyan coast. Compared with all that, the freedom of Megrahi might have been a concession some could live with.