Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi is back in the news. The man convicted of the Lockerby bombing is once more causing controversy as the US questions whether BP was involved in lobbying for his early release.
On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie. 270 people died in a horrific terrorist attack that shocked the nation.
But it wasn’t until January 2001 that Megrahi and his co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah finally came to trial. It took a major diplomatic effort as Libya initially refused to extradite the two men.
Finally a deal was agreed and a trial was held in the Netherlands, but governed by Scots law. Megrahi was found guilty of 270 counts of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fhimah was found not guilty.
There have been numerous legal attempts to gain release for Megrahi, with many who know the case well insisting he was wrongly convicted. But it was on compassionate grounds that he was finally released from Greenock Prison.
In late 2008 Megrahi was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After more legal moves to have him freed the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland’s SNP government, Kenny MacAskill, took the highly unusual step of visiting him in jail.
Shortly afterwards MacAskill announced that as Megrahi only had three months to live he was to be released to live the remainder of his life in Libya. This was a controversial decision and MacAskill was roundly condemned for allowing a man convicted of 270 murders to be freed. When Megrahi returned home he was treated as a returning hero.
Eleven months after his release Megrahi is still alive and apparently well.
In the last few days US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reported to be looking into claims from Democrat senators that oil giant BP lobbied for Megrahi’s release as part of an oil deal with Libya.
It is known that BP sealed a £590 million oil exploration agreement with Libya in 2007. But while no evidence has yet been shown to link this to Megrahi’s release, it brings one of the most controversial episodes in recent times back into the headlines.
Is this perhaps an attempt by US politicians to smear BP, which is hardly the most popular of companies at the moment? Or simply part of the anti Arab feeling that is common in the “war on terror”?
The British government is now involved, with Foreign Secretary William Hague having discussed the issue with Clinton. The Tories opposed the release at the time and are keen to remind us of this fact. While the coalition government will not want to be seen to back conspiracy theories it may well view these claims as a political opportunity to turn the heat onto the SNP.
The Scottish Government’s decision to release the Libyan will now come into sharp media focus once more. And with Scottish elections less than a year away this will not be good news for the SNP.
Kenny MacAskill will no doubt be wishing that he had never heard the name Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.