US officials warned Scotland over release of Lockerbie bomber; feared celebrations in Libya

By Jennifer Quinn, AP
Monday, July 26, 2010

US officials warned Scotland over al-Megrahi

LONDON — American officials were dead-set against the release of the Lockerbie bomber and warned Scottish authorities that scenes of jubilation in Tripoli over his return would upset victims’ families, a newly released document showed Monday.

The Aug. 12, 2009 letter from Richard LeBaron, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in London, to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond sets out the views of the American government as Scotland grappled with whether to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing attack on Pan Am Flight 103.

“The United States maintains its view that in light of the scope of Megrahi’s crime, its heinous nature, and its continuing and devastating impact on the victims and their families, it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence,” the letter says, declaring the U.S was not willing to support his release on either compassionate grounds or under a prisoner transfer agreement.

The release of the correspondence comes ahead of a hearing this week in Washington into the circumstances surrounding the Aug. 20 release of al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 of the attack on the jetliner in the skies above the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland. The December 1988 bombing killed 259 people — mostly Americans — on board the plane, and another 11 on the ground.

The senators will also probe whether an exploration deal between Libya and London-based oil company BP had an impact on the decision to release al-Megrahi.

Britain and Libya began negotiating their prisoner transfer agreement in 2007, and it came into effect last April. BP has acknowledged it had expressed concern to the British government about the progress of the prisoner transfer deal, but said it had not raised the case of al-Megrahi.

The British government has said there is no evidence BP was involved in Scotland’s decision to release him, and Scottish authorities have said they had no contact with BP over al-Megrahi

BP signed a $900 million exploration agreement with Libya in May 2007.

Al-Megrahi’s release was granted by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill last August on compassionate grounds because he said medical experts believed the 58-year-old had less than three months to live. In May, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, said al-Megrahi was still alive but “very sick.”

LeBaron’s letter asked Scotland to obtain “independent and comprehensive” medical advice which showed al-Megrahi had less than three months to live.

“The justification of releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds would be more severely undercut the longer he is free before his actual death,” LeBaron wrote.

And if Scotland did decide to free al-Megrahi on grounds of ill health, the U.S. asked that he be forbidden from traveling outside the country to ensure that he didn’t receive a hero’s welcome in Libya.

Thousands turned out to cheer al-Megrahi as his flight landed in Tripoli, scenes the British government described as “deeply distressing.”

Over the weekend, a British newspaper suggested a section of the letter which said the U.S. considered compassionate release a “far preferable” alternative to returning him under a prisoner transfer agreement, a sign the U.S. was privately less opposed to the possibility.

But the State Department said LeBaron’s letter was written to underscore their objection to al-Megrahi’s release — and to point out there were differences between allowing him to return to Libya and keeping him in Scotland.

“Our firmly held position pending the Scottish decision was that Mr. Megrahi should not return to Libya, where our fear — which ultimately, tragically was realized — is that Megrahi, in returning to Libya, returns a hero’s welcome, for which he was not entitled,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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