In the wake of renewed criticism of the decision by authorities in Scotland last year to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed Al-Megrahi—a Libyan intelligence officer who is the only person convicted in the December 1988 bombing of U.S.-bound Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland—from prison, Britain's new coalition government is distancing itself from the move. Recent media reports and assertions by some U.S. senators have suggested that al-Megrahi's release was somehow connected to efforts by the embattled oil giant BP to win an oil deal in Libya. On Thursday, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington, D.C., issued a statement denying these claims. But Sheinwald also said the new U.K. government, headed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, believes that the decision by Scottish authorities to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds related to his deteriorating health was wrong.
"The new British Government is clear that Megrahi's release was a mistake. The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman said today that: 'The Prime Minister at the time said that he believed the decision to release Megrahi was wrong, and that he understood the concerns that had been raised about it,'" Sheinwald said. He added that the new U.K. government "deeply regrets the continuing anguish that his release on compassionate grounds has caused the families of Megrahi's victims in the UK as well as in the US." The ambassador insisted, however, that since criminal justice powers have been devolved, under U.K. law, to officials of the regional government based in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, only Scottish officials had the authority to consider and act on Megrahi's pleas for release on compassionate grounds. Scottish authorities have said that Scottish law provided for Megrahi's "compassionate" release on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and not expected to live for much more than three months after his release and rapid return to Libya last August.
Sheinwald, channeling the views of the new Cameron/Clegg administration, added that "Whilst we disagreed with the decision to release Megrahi, we have to respect the independence of the process. The Inquiry by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament concluded in February that the Scottish Executive took this decision in good faith, on the basis of the medical evidence available to them at the time, and due process was followed." The ambassador also noted that while Megrahi remains alive today, long after Scottish authorities expected him to die, "We have to accept that [Al-Megrahi's] release licence does not provide a mechanism for a person who has been released on compassionate grounds to be returned to prison if they have survived for longer than the period diagnosed by the relevant medical authorities."
The ambassador's decision to involve himself in the latest controversy over the convicted airplane bomber's release appears to have been prompted by recent news reports confirming that al-Megrahi is still alive. These reports in turn appear to have inspired a letter to Ambassador Sheinwald from the four Democratic Senators from New Jersey and New York–Lautenberg, Menendez, Schumer, and Gillibrand–demanding a fresh investigation into whether the Libyan was appropriately released from prison. Lautenberg sent a subsequent letter [PDF] to leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he revisited old allegations that al-Megrahi's release had somehow been related to an oil deal involving BP, the British oil giant now under huge U.S. and international pressure due to its role in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Late Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, the Foreign Relations Committee's chair, announced that he was going to convene a hearing on July 29 to examine the circumstances of Megrahi's release by the Scots. Kerry said that one of the letter writers, Sen. Robert Menendez, would chair the hearing, and included a tough quote from the New Jersey Democrat in the hearing announcement. "For our national security and for fundamental justice, we need answers about the circumstances of this convicted terrorist's release, and we intend to get answers at this hearing. The more it seems that this was a miscarriage of justice, the more it emboldens would-be terrorists who realize they can get away with murder," Menendez was quoted as saying. Kerry promised that among those the committee would summon to testify would be government experts and representatives of BP.
The beleaguered oil company may have helped to fuel the controversy when it reportedly issued a statement on Thursday in which, according to the New York Times, it confirmed earlier disclosures that it had urged British authorities to go forward and ratify a new prisoner transfer agreement with Libya in order to protect a $900 million offshore oil exploration deal BP had struck with the Libyan regime of President Muammar Gaddafi. The Times said that Jack Straw, justice minister in the former U.K. government headed by Gordon Brown, acknowledged after Megrahi's return to Libya that the BP drilling deal had been "a consideration in the government's review of his case." However, a U.K. official insisted to Declassified that the prisoner exchange pact backed by BP in the end had nothing to do with al-Megrahi's release, nor did Straw or other members of the Brown government have a decisive role in al-Megrahi's case. Instead, the official maintained, the decision to release the Libyan was exclusively made by officials in Edinburgh.
At a State Department public briefing on Wednesday, P.J. Crowley, chief spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that the State Department had received more than one letter from senators complaining about Megrahi's release and a possible BP connection to it, and was considering how to respond