BP, Libya and the national interest

Peter Manson looks at the furore over the release of the 'Lockerbie bomber'

The row over the release a year ago of ‘Lockerbie bomber’ Abdelbaset al-Megrahi continues to pose more questions than it answers.

Al-Megrahi - according to prime minister David Cameron the “biggest mass murderer in British history” - was freed on “compassionate grounds” by Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill, following medical advice that he was terminally ill with prostate cancer and had only around three months to live. Much of the fuss over the last week or so seemed to centre on the fact that al-Megrahi did not have the decency to die quickly enough and ought therefore to be returned to a Scottish prison as punishment.

Cameron has not ruled out an enquiry into the circumstances leading to his release. As everyone knows, prior to that Jack Straw (then justice secretary) had been considering a prisoner transfer deal with Libya and had been in contact with Mark Allen, special advisor to oil giant BP, which has admitted lobbying for such an agreement. The reason why the British transnational was so keen for improved relations with Libya is that it hoped this would smooth the way to its own deal with Tripoli. It has since won prized oil contracts and is expected to begin drilling off the north African coast shortly.

Now Cameron says he will publish previously secret documents revealing the exchanges between Straw and Allen, who just happens to be a former MI6 official (which says quite a lot about the relations between the UK state and the big transnationals, particularly those based in Britain).

Last October Labour foreign secretary David Miliband retrospectively justified the decision - allegedly taken by the Scottish executive alone - to release al-Megrahi on the grounds that Britain’s national interests “would be damaged - perhaps badly - if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than in Libya”.

Commenting on this last week, The Daily Telegraph remarks in an editorial: “It was patently to the advantage of the Labour government to see Megrahi released. It not only set the seal on the return of Libya into the international community (a wholly desirable development), but also opened the way to potentially lucrative commercial deals, particularly in oil and gas” (editorial, July 22).

Well, we know that the Telegraph likes to score points on behalf of the Tories, but it is in effect agreeing with Miliband that the release was in ‘Britain’s national interests’, not just those of the “Labour government”, which would be able to claim the credit. Not only has a British transnational already benefited from some of those “potentially lucrative commercial deals”, but there are more in the offing. The state-owned Libyan Investment Authority set up an office in London once it knew al-Megrahi was about to be released.

In fact the Conservative Party itself also has an interest in improved relations with Libya, it seems. Just before the general election it began to receive donations from CC Property Company, which now total more than £100,000. CC Property is a British company, which makes the donations legal, but it is controlled by Palestinian billionaires with substantial interests in Libya, including drilling in its offshore oilfields.

Meanwhile ex-PM Tony Blair has apparently been spending a lot of time in Tripoli, acting on behalf of global investment bank JP Morgan, which now has a big presence in Libya and for whom he is an advisor. It has even been claimed that Blair is also employed by the Libyan regime. Whatever the case, clearly the bourgeoisie as a whole has gained from bringing Libya in from the cold.

However, the al-Megrahi-BP connection has certainly aroused passions across the Atlantic, where BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward - due for a pay-off totalling £12 million when he steps down in October - has almost the same pariah status as Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi ‘enjoyed’ at the time of the Lockerbie bombing. The reason for that, of course, is the catastrophic oil spill following the April 26 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Not only were 11 workers killed, but something approaching 200 million gallons of oil has poured into the Gulf of Mexico wreaking untold devastation. Hayward is to be replaced by American Bob Dudley, the first non-British CEO.

Now a US senate committee has been set up to look into the circumstances surrounding al-Megrahi’s release and has invited all the key British and Scottish figures, including Straw, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, MacAskill and Scottish medical experts, to give evidence. But for some mysterious reason the invitation intended to go to Blair has not been sent.

Foreign secretary William Hague has given the UK position to the chair of the senate committee. While the release - taken exclusively in Scotland, of course - was “misguided”, he said, it was “legally and constitutionally proper”. What is more, BP had behaved in a “perfectly legitimate way” when it lobbied for a prisoner transfer agreement in 2007. There was no evidence that this had had any effect on the freeing of al-Megrahi.

Despite the denials, though, it is a distinct possibility that he was released in Britain’s ‘national interests’. In other words, the decision was not made by MacAskill alone or even the Scottish executive and al-Megrahi’s terminal illness was not the determining factor (whether or not the diagnosis was accurate). After all, part of the deal was that al-Megrahi had to agree to drop his appeal against conviction for the murder of 270 people (189 of them US citizens) after Pan Am flight 103 was blown up in December 1988.

Why were the authorities so keen to avoid an appeal? There is much talk of fresh evidence that would allegedly prove that neither al-Megrahi nor the Gaddafi regime was responsible. It is certainly true that, just as it is now convenient for the bourgeoisie to see Libya rehabilitated, so in the 1980s it was useful for both the US and Britain to brand Gaddafi as the new Adolf Hitler.

There have been all sorts of questions raised about the reliability of al-Megrahi’s conviction, but if indeed he was falsely accused (framed), then the last thing the UK-US would want is the emergence of the whole truth and why it has been covered up for so long.

So Cameron may hold his narrowly defined enquiry into BP’s lobbying, al-Megrahi’s release and other events of the last couple of years. But he will not want the original conviction to be seriously re-examined. And neither, I suspect, will the US.