LONDON // The blunt refusal by key British politicians to give evidence to the US Senate over the release of the Lockerbie bomber opened up a serious political rift across the Atlantic yesterday. Jack Straw, the UK justice secretary at the time of Abdelbaset Ali al Megrahi's release last year, and Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice minister responsible for freeing the Libyan after he had served just eight years of a life sentence, have both flatly rejected "invitations" to give evidence before the Senate's foreign relations committee this Thursday.
The committee is investigating suggestions that pressure from BP to seal an oil deal with Libya was behind al Megrahi's release. The company, the UK government and the Scottish executive have all denied any such link. However, the Americans - whose latest bête noire is BP because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill - remain suspicious because the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, and the Libyan leader, Col Moammar Qadafi, signed a prisoner transfer agreement at the same time as the oil giant received Libyan approval for the US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion) deal.
One of the four US senators leading the congressional inquiry yesterday wrote to Alex Salmond, first minister in the quasi-independent Scottish government, "pleading" with him to reconsider his decision not to allow Mr MacAskill to give evidence. Sen Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said the grief of the families of the 270 who died when a bomb exploded on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, had been "amplified" by allegations of BP's involvement.
"I am pleading for direct representation from the Scottish government at our hearing next week to help us seek answers," he wrote. "Your co-operation in sending a knowledgeable person will help establish a credible record of what transpired." But UK and Scottish politicians are angered by what they see as US interference in the affairs of a sovereign state and suspect American politicians are exploiting the issue in the hope of winning votes in the mid-term elections.
Mike Gapes, the chairman of the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee in the last parliament, attacked the decision to invite Mr Straw. "We, in our parliament, have never tried to summon Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. I think it is political grandstanding by some US senators." Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, added: "The Senate committee clearly is on a witch-hunt against BP. They would be highly annoyed if one of our committees demanded to see an American politician."
Mr MacAskill, who pointed out on Friday that he was only "accountable to Scotland" and had "no information to provide" on any BP deal, has told the senators that the decision to free al Megrahi was made solely on compassionate grounds and had nothing to do with the UK government's prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. For his part, Mr Straw has told the senators that he had "absolutely nothing to do" with the decision to free Megrahi, a cancer sufferer who supposedly had less than three months to live when he was freed but is still alive 11 months on.
The stance of the British politicians has not impressed Kathleen Flynn, a New Jersey mother whose son John, then 21, was killed in the bombing. She said: "All of them should be ashamed of themselves. They are a disgrace to their countries. Their refusal is a slight to all the victims' families." Yesterday, the New York Daily News reproduced part of a letter from Lord (David) Trefgarne, a former Conservative government minister and head of the Libyan-British Business Council, written to Mr MacAskill the month before al Megrahi's release.
In the letter, Lord Trefgarne, whose son used to be a BP executive, suggested that the Scottish government might not want to release al Megrahi under the prisoner transfer agreement but should consider it on compassionate grounds. The letter added: "The Libyan authorities have made it clear that should he die in prison in Scotland, there will be serious implications for UK-Libyan relations. This prospect is of grave concern to [Libyan-British Business Council] members, not just Scottish ones."
Overnight, William Hague, foreign secretary in the new coalition government in the UK, acknowledged in a letter to the Senate committee that BP did lobby the previous Labour administration in favour of the prisoner transfer agreement, but he said that the agreement played no part in the Scottish decision to free al Megrahi. firstname.lastname@example.org