LONDON // The Libyan leader Muammer Qadafi made "thuggish" threats to halt all trade with the UK if the Lockerbie bomber were left to die in prison, according to the latest WikiLeaks revelations.
There were even implied threats to the safety of UK diplomatic staff and Britons working in Libya, according to hitherto secret US diplomatic cables released by the website to The Guardian newspaper yesterday.
The US president Barack Obama's administration was also warned by the US ambassador in Tripoli not to publicly oppose beforehand the release of Abdelbaset al Megrahi lest Libya impose a similar trade boycott on the United States.
Richard LeBaron, the American chargé d'affaires in London, is quoted as telling Washington in October 2008: "The Libyans have told HMG [the UK government] flat out that there will be 'enormous repercussions' for the UK-Libya bilateral relationship if al Megrahi's early release is not handled properly."
To the subsequent fury of the US administration and the relatives of the 270 killed when a bomb exploded aboard a Pan Am Jumbo in 1988, al Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison in August last year after serving only eight years of a life sentence for the murders.
The decision to free him rested in the hands of the quasi-independent Scottish government, which has always insisted the decision was taken solely on compassionate grounds because al Megrahi was suffering from prostate cancer and had only three months to live. Almost 18 months later, he is still alive and living in a villa in Tripoli.
According to the latest leaks, as well as threatening "dire reprisals" against the UK, Mr Qadafi offered "a parade of treats" to the Scottish administration if it released the only person convicted of the bombing over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
The cables make clear, though, that the Scots turned down these incentives. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond told the BBC yesterday that the cables "vindicated" his government's position.
"We weren't interested in threats. We weren't interested in blandishments. We were interested in Scots justice," he said.
"Frankly I don't believe anybody seriously believes that the Scottish government acted in anything other than the precepts of Scots justice."
However, one of the cables to Washington indicates a level of UK involvement in the Scots' decision. "HMG believes that the Scottish may be inclined to grant the request [to release al Megrahi], based on conversations between Alex Salmond and UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw," it said.
Gene Kretz, the US ambassador in Tripoli, also warned Washington that America should not intervene to stop the release of the bomber for fear of incurring the same trade sanctions that Mr Qadafi had threatened against Britain.
Mr Kretz wrote early last year: "If the US 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 US interests could face similar consequences."
Outlining the "dire" reprisals Libya was threatening against the UK, Mr Kretz wrote in January last year that, if al Megrahi died in prison, the consequences "would be harsh, immediate and not easily remedied".
He added: "Specific threats have included the immediate cessation of all UK commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties and demonstrations against official UK facilities.
"Officials also implied, but did not directly state, that the welfare of UK diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk."
After al Megrahi's release and the hero's welcome he received on returning to Tripoli, Mr Kretz reported that Vincent Fean, the British ambassador in Tripoli, had "expressed relief".
Another cable suggested that Mr Straw had accepted that al Megrahi could live for five years, rather than three months, "but the average life expectancy of someone of his age with his condition is 18 months to two years".
The cable added: "Doctors are not sure where he is on the timescale."
Mr Straw, who lost his ministerial post with the defeat of the Labour government in this year's election, said yesterday that the revelations of Libya's threats had no connection to the final decision.
"Both Alex Salmond and the British government have said until they're blue in the face what is true - that this was a decision made by the Scottish government, and by nobody else," he told the BBC.
"And they did it on the basis of their law and their practice so far as the release of people in serious medical conditions on compassionate grounds."