- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

LONDON (AP) — Newly disclosed letters indicate that Britain’s Middle East minister and other officials advised Scotland’s government that there were no legal obstacles to returning the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber to his native Libya.

The letters published Tuesday also show diplomats explained that the U.K. had never made a binding promise to the United States to keep Abdel Baset al-Megrahi jailed in Scotland.

A separate file of correspondence shows that British Justice Secretary Jack Straw initially believed al-Megrahi should be excluded from a prisoner transfer agreement signed between the U.K. and Libya, but later changed his mind — saying he did not wish to damage the “beneficial relationship” between the two countries.

Al-Megrahi was jailed for the 1988 bombing that killed 270 people — mainly Americans. Scottish officials released him last month on compassionate grounds — because he is terminally ill with cancer — rather than under a transfer agreement.

Officials insisted in the Foreign Office letters that only Scotland’s government could decide whether to send the convict home, but offered assurance that London did not believe it would breach international law, or risk souring ties with key allies, if Scottish ministers did so.

In a letter sent Aug. 3, Ivan Lewis, Britain’s Middle East minister, told Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill that Britain’s government didn’t believe returning al-Megrahi home would breach promises made to the United States or United Nations.

“The U.K. government’s assessment remains that while the U.S. pressed the U.K. to provide a definitive commitment on the future imprisonment of the Lockerbie accused, the U.K. government of the day declined to do this on the grounds that it did not wish to bind the hands of future governments,” Lewis wrote.

He said that at the time of al-Megrahi’s 2001 conviction ministers could “not rule out the possibility that our relations with Libya may one day change, as indeed they have.”

In a separate letter, sent to Scottish government official George Burgess in July, the Foreign Office told him that Britain “did not give the U.S. an absolute commitment” to keep al-Megrahi jailed in Scotland.

It noted that there was no “definitive commitment, legal or otherwise,” to prevent al-Megrahi’s return.

Parts of both letters, including the name of the official within the Foreign Office’s Middle East and North Africa desk who wrote the July note, were redacted in the versions made public.

A separate file of correspondence between Scotland’s government and officials from Britain’s justice ministry shows that Straw initially believed al-Megrahi should be excluded from an agreement between Britain and Libya on the future transfer of prisoners.

But, in a letter sent to Scottish officials in December 2007, Straw changed his position and said he had decided al-Megrahi should be included, “in view of the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom.”

In February, Straw told Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that it would be always be for Scottish ministers to decide al-Megrahi’s fate.

“Given these safeguards, I do not believe that it is necessary or sensible to risk damaging our wide-ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific inclusion into the” prisoner transfer agreement, Straw wrote.

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