Buying forgiveness with “blood money” is old hat. These days, it seems, “compassion” comes wrapped in lucrative business deals and petro-dollars as the furore over the release of Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi (the ailing “Lockerbie bomber”) suggests.

Critics say that the decision to free Mr. Megrahi, a former Libyan spy jailed for life in 2001 for his role in the 1988 Lockerbie air crash that killed 270 people, was part of a trade deal with Libya. It has been reported that Tripoli had threatened to freeze out British businesses if Mr. Megrahi was not released.

Indeed, it is almost official. Much to the embarrassment of the British government Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's elder son and putative heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, has publicly stated that Mr. Megrahi's release was linked to business discussions with Britain.

“In all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain [Megrahi] was always on the negotiating table,” he told Libyan TV.

An immediate beneficiary of Mr. Megrahi's release, it is believed, will be BP (British Petroleum) which has invested heavily in Libya but had reportedly been facing bureaucratic hurdles there.

“If industry insiders are to be believed, al-Megrahi's release will unlock all the obstacles hampering BP's $900 million Libyan gas project… BP's only one of a vast number of foreign investment opportunities in Libya's energy sectors,” The Times reported speculating that Britain would be “eager” to ensure that its “favours” would not be forgotten in Tripoli when it came to handing out business contracts to foreign companies.

The British government has dismissed as a “slur” suggestions linking Mr. Megrahi's release with business deals, but then they would do that. Wouldn't they?

It is important to point out that Mr. Megrahi always protested his innocence and an appeal against his conviction was due to be heard soon. There is a strong view among some legal experts that he was a victim of “miscarriage” of justice as his conviction was based wholly on circumstantial evidence, much of it rather flimsy. Family members of some of the victims, too, suspect that he was made a “fall guy” in order to protect the real culprit(s).

Mr. Megrahi (57), who has terminal prostate cancer, was freed after doctors said he had less than three months to live. Strictly in legal terms, the Scottish government acted within the framework of its justice system which gives it the discretion to release a prisoner in such circumstances. It is on moral grounds that the decision has sparked fury drawing even U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton into the row.

The White House “deeply regretted” that a convicted ``mass murderer'' had been set free despite protests from the families of the crash victims on both sides of the Atlantic while Robert Mueller, chief of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, called it a “mockery of the rule of law” that would give “comfort to terrorists.”

Scenes of Mr. Meghrahi receiving a “hero's welcome” back home, with Col. Qadhafi being shown publicly hugging him on Libyan television, have further inflamed anger.

The Scottish government insists that it did the right thing in allowing a dying man to spend the last days of his life with his family and that it is not responsible for the behaviour of Col. Qadhafi and the Libyan public.

So, what is one to make of all the sound and fury that has followed Mr. Megrahi's release?

Leaving aside the understandably emotive reaction of the victims' relatives the whole Megrahi saga (his conviction as well as his release) really turns on the politics (or rather the economics) of international relations that has seen Libya, once regarded as a terrorist state by the West, being embraced by western leaders in return for Libyan business contracts. Business and politics was as much at the heart of the process that led to Mr. Megrahi's conviction as it is in relation to his release.

It all started when Libya, in a bid to mend fences with the West, agreed in 1999-2000 to hand over Mr. Megrahi and another suspect, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, for trial at a specially convened Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. Libya also agreed to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the victims of the Lockerbie crash. This paved the way for a rapprochement process that saw Col. Qadhafi renounce terrorism and abandon his nuclear programme in exchange for lifting of sanctions and resumption of trade sparking a race among American, British and European companies for Libyan contracts.

For Britain, the key moment was the then prime minister Tony Blair's visit to Libya in 2007. It not only opened the doors for British companies to invest in Libya's bourgeoning energy sector but, significantly, it was also during that visit that he negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya which, according to critics say, was really meant to facilitate Mr. Megrahi's transfer to a Libyan jail. Had Mr. Megrahi not been stricken by terminal cancer, Libya would have invoked the agreement to have him transferred to Libya, it is stated.

The British government claims that it had nothing do with the devolved Scottish administration's decision but it has now emerged that the Scottish government did consult the Foreign Office and was advised that there was no legal impediment to the release. Intriguingly, while denying any role in the decision London has not stated what its own view on the issue is — fuelling speculation that quietly it agrees with Edinburgh.


Megrahi: will prove my innocenceAugust 22, 2009

Lockerbie bomber releasedAugust 21, 2009