The former Labour government did “all it could” to help Libya secure the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Britain’s top civil servant has said.
Sir Gus O’Donnell concluded that a policy was progressively developed to facilitate the Libyans in their appeal to the Scottish government to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted over the 1988 bombing which killed 271 people, on compassionate grounds.
Prime Minister David Cameron ordered Sir Gus to carry out a review of the papers following his visit to the United States last year.
In his report, Sir Gus said: “Policy was, therefore, progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, while respecting devolved competencies, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish government for Mr Megrahi’s transfer under the PTA (Prisoner Transfer Agreement) or for release on compassionate grounds.”
Sir Gus said that he had not seen any evidence that the UK government “pressured or lobbied” the Scottish government for Megrahi’s release.
In his only meeting with the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in July 2009 – a month before Megrahi’s return to Tripoli – then prime minister Gordon Brown had made clear that he could not interfere.
“Nonetheless, once Mr Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 20008, HMG policy was based upon an assessment that UK interests would be damaged if Mr Megrahi were to die in a UK jail,” Sir Gus said.
“The development of this view was prompted, following Mr Megrahi’s diagnosis of terminal illness, by the extremely high priority attached to Mr Megrahi’s return by the Libyans, who had made clear that they would regard his death in Scottish custody as a death sentence and by actual and implicit threats made of severe ramifications for UK interests if Mr Megrahi were to die in prison in Scotland.”
Sir Gus said the government had been “primarily motivated by a desire to build on previous success in normalising relations with Libya and to safeguard the substantial gains made in recent years, and specifically to avoid harm to UK nationals, to British commercial interests and to co-operation on security issues”.
Sir Gus confirmed that oil giant BP had lobbied the UK government, warning ministers that failure to reach a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA), which enabled Megrahi’s return, could have an impact on British commercial interests.