Tuesday in Libya was slated to be a blowout party for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to mark the 40th anniversary of the bloodless coup that brought him to power. And it might have been, had the world's longest-serving ruler not been wrangling for nearly two weeks with British and U.S. officials over the rapturous homecoming of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi after his release from a Scottish prison on Aug. 20.
As fireworks exploded over Tripoli almost all Western leaders stayed away the controversy over al-Megrahi's release continued in the U.S. and Britain, where some victims' families and politicians say they suspect that Britain secretly traded al-Megrahi's freedom for big oil deals in energy-rich Libya.
In an attempt to tamp down the scandal, the British and Scottish governments published a batch of letters online on Sept. 1 detailing the discussions over how to handle al-Megrahi. The letters date back to June 2007, when British oil companies were negotiating huge new deals in Libya. In February 2008, British Justice Minister Jack Straw wrote to Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, that "developing a strong relationship with Libya ... is good for the U.K.," adding that Libya "is one of only two countries to have ever voluntarily and transparently dismantled its weapons of mass destruction program ... [and] ... is in a key position to help stem the flow of illegal migrants to the E.U. and to the U.K."
One Scottish document in particular could cause grief for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who insists that Britain had nothing to do with al-Megrahi's release. By contrast, the document, the minutes of a March 2009 meeting between Libyan and Scottish officials, says a Libyan minister recounted being told by British Foreign Minister Bill Rammell "that neither the prime minister [Brown] nor the foreign secretary [David Miliband] would want Mr. Megrahi to pass away in prison, but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of the Scottish ministers." If the critically ill al-Megrahi died in jail, the Libyan minister told Scottish officials, there would be "catastrophic consequences" for Britain's relations with Libya.
In his correspondence, Justice Minister Straw didn't specifically mention Libya's oil wealth. But the importance of maintaining Britain's good ties with Gaddafi is clear in the letters, as when Straw explained why he chose not to exclude al-Megrahi from a prisoner-transfer agreement between Britain and Libya that was signed in November 2008. "I do not believe it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya," he wrote, before signing off, "Yours, Jack."
Despite suspicions among some politicians and some of the victims' families of a secret deal between Libya and Britain, Prime Minister Brown and key Cabinet members have insisted that al-Megrahi's release was decided solely by Scotland's Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, who freed him on compassionate grounds, saying he was dying of prostate cancer and had only three months left to live.
Now even that motivation is in doubt. A medical officer's report to MacAskill, dated Aug. 10, says, "It is very difficult to be precise on matters of prognosis for any disease, and Mr. Megrahi's condition is no different ... Factors in favor of a good prognosis in Mr. Megrahi's case center around his background of general good health, quality of health care and overall lifestyle, involvement in his care and compliance with treatment." Justice Minister Straw has said he originally argued to have al-Megrahi excluded from last November's bilateral prisoner-transfer agreement but ultimately gave in to Libya's demands; in the end, al-Megrahi was freed under Scottish law, which permits compassionate releases.
Libya's Minister of External Relations, Mohammed Siala, further stoked the secret-deal theory on Sept. 1 when he suggested that the release would probably help Britain's prospects in the country. "This political problem is unstuck. At least we moved it away, and this will open good avenues for developing relations," he told reporters in Tripoli.