Suspicions that the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber had more to do with politics than with compassion grew Sunday with the disclosure that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi discussed the release in a face-to-face meeting six weeks earlier.
The two leaders met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in early July. At that meeting, Mr. Brown said, “I stressed that, should the Scottish executive decide that Megrahi can return to Libya, this should be a purely private family occasion” and not a public celebration.
The disclosure that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi’s release was in the works long before Thursday’s decision by a Scottish court to set him free belied repeated claims by Mr. Brown’s government over the weekend that there was no behind-the-scenes deal between the two governments.
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On Thursday, al-Megrahi walked out of a Scottish prison after serving eight years of a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people just days before Christmas.
Al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in the attack, promptly boarded a jet and flew to Tripoli, where he was greeted by cheering crowds that included Col. Gadhafi’s son before he was whisked away in an all-white motorcade.
The release was condemned by President Obama, members of Congress and family of those killed in the attack, some of whom said they were sickened by his release and the celebration that followed.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, elevated the criticism from moral indignation to politics Sunday on the television talk show circuit.
“Well, this is obviously a political decision, which is out of my lane. But I mean, just personally, I was appalled by the decision,” Adm. Mullen said on CNN.
U.S. and Scottish law enforcement officials indicted al-Megrahi and Amin Khalifa Fhimah on Nov. 14, 1991. They were the only two ever to be charged in the bombing. Mr. Fhimah was acquitted in January, 2001.
However, U.S. authorities have long suspected that many more terrorists were involved in the incident and kept the case open.
Despite Libya’s decision in 2003 to accept responsibility and pay restitution to the relatives of victims, U.S. officials have not closed the case.
“There remains an open indictment in D.C. and an open investigation,” Richard Kolko, spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, told The Washington Times on Sunday.
Another U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the political situation, said al-Megrahi still faces an indictment of nearly 200 counts in the United States.
The dead included 189 Americans, many on their way home from schools in Europe to spend the Christmas holiday season with their families.
Al-Megrahi, who is terminally ill with prostate cancer, was released Thursday on what Scotland’s justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, deemed “compassionate” grounds.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III strongly criticized the decision over the weekend, saying it “makes a mockery of the rule of law. … Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world.”
The British prime minister has faced intense criticism all weekend from the press.
Mr. Brown wrote a “Dear Muammar” letter to Col. Gadhafi on Friday, wishing the Libyan leader a happy Ramadan. The text of the letter, released Sunday, disclosed the face-to-face conversation at the G-8 summit.
Col. Gadhafi thanked Mr. Brown and Queen Elizabeth II on Friday for “encouraging the Scottish government” to make its decision - a claim that Downing Street continues to deny.
The Guardian newspaper first reported the Brown-Gadhafi conversation in Italy six weeks earlier.
The British Sunday Times reported that British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis also was involved. He reportedly wrote to the Scottish justice minister, informing him that there was no legal reason to refrain from granting Libya’s request to transfer al-Megrahi under a treaty between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Col. Gadhafi in 2007.
The letter was written Aug. 3, less than three weeks before al-Megrahi was freed. The Sunday Times also quoted a source close to MacAskill as saying: “That clearly means, ‘I hope on this basis you will feel able to approve the Libyan application.’ That’s the only conclusion you can take from it.”
The paper alluded to a lucrative oil deal between Great Britain and Libya, and that Libya was threatening to cut diplomatic ties. British officials have denied the charges.