A newly-released letter shows that worried U.S. officials warned Scottish authorities that scenes of jubilation in Tripoli over the release of the Lockerbie bomber would be damaging, and asked that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi not be allowed to leave Scotland.
A 2009 diplomatic letter from Richard LeBaron, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in London, to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was released Monday.
It sets out Washington’s opposition to the release, and says even a release on compassionate grounds because of al-Megrahi’s diagnosis for prostate cancer would be more “severely undercut the longer he is free before his actual death.”
Al-Megrahi was imprisoned for the 1988 bombing over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, in which 270 people were killed in the air and on the ground.
“The United States is not prepared to support Megrahi’s release on compassionate release or bail,” LeBron wrote, saying “it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence,” given the “heinous nature” and scope of his crime, “and its continued and devastating impact on the victims and their families.”
“Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.”
The letter continued to state that “while we are not able to endorse the early release of Megrahi under any scenario,” certain conditions (such as establishing that his life expectancy is less than three months through independent and comprehensive medical exams; sharing the results of those exams with U.S. authorities and the victims’ families; and preventing him from leaving Scotland) “would mitigate a number of the strong concerns that we have expressed with regard to Megrahi’s release.”
He was released from a Scottish prison last August on compassionate grounds after doctors said he would die within three months. Megrahi was flown to Libya (where he received a hero’s welcome), and nearly a year later is still alive.
News of Megrahi’s release prompted outrage, and his continued freedom has drawn renewed criticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain’s new Prime Minister David Cameron said he disagreed with the release but that it was a decision of Scottish justice ministers.
The White House has faced increased pressure from Senators probing the freeing of al-Megrahi to release the diplomatic letter.
Last August the Guardian revealed the letter’s existence, which its sources described as saying the U.S. rejected sending al-Megrahi back home to his family, and that if he were to be freed the U.S. felt it “far preferable” for him to remain in Scotland under house arrest than
to be returned to Libya.
However the Guardian earlier today published an article in which it characterizes the letter as being one in which “The U.S. grudgingly supported freeing the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds.”
Today a White House spokesman told CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller that media reports suggesting the Obama administration had given its reluctant endorsement to the release of al-Megrahi are “totally inaccurate.”
Last August President Obama told an interviewer, “We have been in contact with the Scottish government indicating that we objected to this,” as Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly conveyed to British and Scottish authorities that the U.S. believed al-Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland.
And at his meeting with Cameron in Washington D.C., last week, Mr. Obama said Americans were “surprised, disappointed and angry” at the decision to release al-Megrahi.
Scottish officials responsible for the release have rejected requests to testify before a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the matter, as has Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
BP has acknowledged it lobbied the U.K. government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya as it sought an oil deal with that country, but said it didn’t specifically discuss al-Megrahi.