The British government’s deep fears that Libya would take “harsh and immediate” action against U.K. interests if the convicted Lockerbie bomber died in a Scottish prison are revealed in secret U.S. embassy cables which show London’s full support for the early release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, made explicit and “thuggish” threats to halt all trade deals with Britain and harass embassy staff if Megrahi remained in jail, the cables show. At the same time “a parade of treats” was offered by Libya to the Scottish government if it agreed to let him go, though the cable says they were turned down.

'Between a rock and a hard place'

Britain at the time was “in an awkward position” and “between a rock and a hard place”. The London charge d’affaires, Richard LeBaron, wrote in a cable to Washington in October 2008. “The Libyans have told HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] flat out that there will be ‘enormous repercussions’ for the U.K.-Libya bilateral relationship if Megrahi’s early release is not handled properly.” This intelligence, the cable said, was confided to the U.S. embassy by two British officials: Ben Lyons, in charge of North Africa for the U.K. prime minister’s office in Downing Street, and Rob Dixon, his counterpart at the U.K. Foreign Office.

Details of the Megrahi manoeuvrings come in the latest batch of leaked U.S. dispatches which also detail: — Deep distrust of Gaddafi among other African leaders; Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, for example, feared a Libyan attack on his aircraft.

— Gaddafi’s many eccentricities, including phobias about flying over water and staying above ground floor level.

— Saudi calls for an Arab-led force, backed by U.S. air and sea power, to fight Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Megrahi cables may do much to explain why he was released in August 2009, supposedly because he was on the brink of death from prostate cancer. The decision incurred American wrath. More than a year on Megrahi is still alive, having been feted when he was escorted back to Tripoli by Gaddafi’s son.

Public congressional hearings in September were told by a U.S. prostate specialist that the official reason for the compassionate release — that Megrahi was within three months of death — was “ridiculous”.

Anger with the British persists in some American circles, and U.K. ministers, Labour and Tory, have attempted to distance London from the release insisting it was purely a Scottish decision.

In January 2009, six months before Megrahi’s release, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, confirmed that “dire” reprisals had been threatened against the U.K., and the British were braced to take “dramatic” steps for self-protection.

U.K. threatened

The Libyans “convinced U.K. embassy officers that the consequences if Megrahi were to die in prison ... would be harsh, immediate and not easily remedied ... specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all U.K. commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties, and demonstrations against official U.K. facilities.

“[Libyan] officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk.” The British ambassador in Tripoli, Vincent Fean, “expressed relief” when Megrahi was released, the U.S. reported.

“He noted that a refusal of Megrahi’s request could have had disastrous implications for British interests in Libya. ‘They could have cut us off at the knees,’ Fean bluntly said.” Cretz cabled that “the regime remains essentially thuggish in its approach”. He warned the U.S. itself should keep quiet: “If the [US government] publicly opposes al-Megrahi’s release or is perceived to be complicit in a decision to keep al-Megrahi in prison, [America’s Libyan diplomatic] post judges that U.S. interests could face similar consequences.” In the light of the repeated, politically unacceptable demands for Megrahi’s release from Gaddafi, the illness at first seemed providential for Britain.

The cables reveal how the Scottish Nationalist first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, was edged into taking the political heat for releasing Megrahi, who had been diagnosed with cancer in September 2008. The message U.S. diplomats received from Jack Straw, then Labour justice minister for England and Wales, was that although Megrahi might survive up to five years, Labour’s rivals in Scotland — Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) — were nonetheless inclined to release him.

A cable said: “Megrahi could have as long as five years to live but the average life expectancy of someone of his age with his condition is 18 months to two years. Doctors are not sure where he is on the time scale.

Salmond had told the U.S. consul in Edinburgh on 21 August that “he and his government had played straight with both the U.S. and the UK governments, but implied the U.K. had not ... he said the Libyan government had offered the Scottish government a parade of treats, ‘all of which were turned down’”. Three days later Robin Naysmith, who served as the SNP’s representative in Washington, said Salmond was shocked by the U.S. outcry. “Naysmith underscored that Scotland received ‘nothing’ for releasing Megrahi, while the U.K. government has gotten everything — a chance to stick it to Salmond’s SNP and good relations with Libya.”

Qatar’s role suspected in Megrahi’s release

Washington’s ambassador to London, Louis Susman, observed unsympathetically: “It is clear that the Scottish government underestimated the blowback it would receive in response to Megrahi’s release and is now trying to paint itself as the victim.” U.S. officials were suspicious, going so far as privately to accuse the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar of bribing the Scots by dangling the possibility of Middle East loans.

In October 2009 the U.S. ambassador in Doha confronted Khalid al-Attiyah, a Qatari minister who had lobbied SNP politicians at the time.

The U.S. had “strong objections” to what had happened, he said. “The ambassador raised strong U.S. government concerns about Qatar’s role in the release ... Al-Attiyah explained the Arab League had asked Qatar, in its capacity as the current chair ... to seek Megrahi’s release on humanitarian grounds; second, Megrahi had sent a personal letter to [the Qatar ruler] pleading for humanitarian intervention.

“Ambassador pressed the issue of whether Qatar had offered any financial or trade incentives to induce al-Megrahi’s release. Al-Attiyah strongly dismissed such speculation, saying: ‘That is ridiculous. It was not necessary to offer money. It was all done within Scottish law. We offered no money, investment, or payment of any kind.’” The other object of U.S. suspicion was the then UK premier Tony Blair’s 2007 visit to Libya as British prime minister. The trip was linked to oil and gas. The U.S. embassy in Tripoli noted on 23 August 2009: “Rumours that Blair made linkages between Megrahi’s release and trade deals have been longstanding among embassy contacts ... the UK ambassador in Tripoli categorically denied the claims.” Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

More In: International | News