LONDON // The Obama administration is making fresh demands that the British explain the reasons behind the early release of the Lockerbie bomber. Abdelbaset Ali al Megrahi was freed by the devolved Scottish government almost a year ago on the grounds he had terminal cancer and had less than three months to live. But he remains alive and well in Tripoli. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and William Hague, the foreign secretary in the new coalition government in the UK, have now had a phone discussion over US demands for more information about the decision to free al Megrahi.
Four US senators last week accused BP, a company that certainly is not flavour of the month in America after the Mexican Gulf oil spill, of putting pressure on the UK government to release al Megrahi to smooth the way for a major oil deal with the Libyans. PJ Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, said after Mrs Clinton and Mr Hague had spoken: "The secretary indicated that it might be appropriate for the British government to communicate with Congress as well to make sure that they fully understand what transpired a year ago."
Mr Crowley told the BBC yesterday: "There were very legitimate questions raised about the medical information that led to the decision. "People have raised questions about interactions between the UK government and BP over the negotiation of a prisoner transfer agreement. And we will look to the British government to help us fully understand the basis to the decision that led to Megrahi's release."
Conservatives members of the new government in Britain, including the prime minister, David Cameron, and Mr Hague, were opposed to al Megrahi's release last August. Mr Hague is understood to have told Mrs Clinton that he regarded the release of the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing in which 270 people died when Pan Am 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, to have been "a mistake".
A spokesman for Mr Cameron said: "He has said in the past that he believes that the decision was wrong. Obviously, he respects the process [that allowed the Scottish government to release al Megrahi], but he said at the time he thought it was wrong." Gordon Brown's Labour Party government was in office at the time of the release, though the decision to free al Megrahi on compassionate grounds was made by the Scottish administration under the control of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Mr Hague is understood to have assured Mrs Clinton that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government now in power in the UK will "engage constructively" with both the White House and the Senate. The Senate foreign relations committee is planning to ask BP officials to testify after the company admitted lobbying the British government in 2007 over a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Col Muammar Qadafi's regime.
The company has admitted that it did press for a PTA agreement because it feared that a delay might have "negative consequences" for UK commercial interests. But the firm insists it "was not involved in any discussions with the UK government or the Scottish government about the release of Mr al Megrahi". Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the explosion and who now leads a Lockerbie relatives' group that is sceptical about al Megrahi's guilt, criticised the "mass hysteria and misunderstanding" in the US over the the decision to release him.
"The public attitude in the US is to seek revenge against BP and this is harming America's image," he told the Scottish newspaper The Herald yesterday. "There is no surprise in the idea of BP lobbying the UK government but that does not change the fact that the decision to release Megrahi was not made by the UK government. "I think there is a mass hysteria in the US. Pursuing this line that BP lobbied for Megrahi's release comes perilously close to saying the UK government somehow put pressure on Scotland to release him."
Nevertheless, there remain questions over the basis of the medical evidence that was, supposedly, the only reason for al Megrahi's release. Scottish officials privately admit that it is embarrassing to see a convicted murderer still alive after almost a year when he was freed because he was meant to have only weeks to live. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the UK ambassador in Washington, said last week that the British government "is clear that Megrahi's release was a mistake" and "deeply regrets" the anguish it continued to cause to victims' families.
He added: "Whilst we disagreed with the decision to release Megrahi, we have to respect the independence of the process. "The inquiry by the justice committee of the Scottish Parliament concluded in February that the Scottish Executive took this decision in good faith, on the basis of the medical evidence available to them at the time, and due process was followed." A spokesman for the Scottish government said it had "no contact from BP in relation to Mr al Megrahi" and said the issues raised in the US related to the UK-negotiated PTA agreement to which it had always been "totally opposed".
That agreement, the spokesman added, had "nothing to do with the decision on compassionate release which is a totally different process, based on entirely different criteria". @Email:email@example.com