Amid the lingering furor over the Scottish government's recent decision to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, it's the question that just won't go away: Did the British government agree to make Mr. Megrahi eligible for return to Libya in exchange for that country giving up its nuclear ambitions – and oil deals worth billions of dollars?
For a week and a half, reports raising the question have been trickling in as British politicians have been scurrying to deny that oil had anything to do with Megrahi's Aug. 20 release on compassionate grounds.
Then, today, the center-right London newspaper The Times dropped a bombshell.
"Lockerbie bomber 'set free for oil,' " screams the headline.
The Times reports that leaked letters sent two years ago by British Justice Secretary Jack Straw to his Scottish counterpart, Kenny MacAskill, "makes it plain that the key decision to include Megrahi in a deal with Libya to allow prisoners to return home was, in fact, taken in London for British national interests."
The last Straw?
According to the report, the letters reveal that Mr. Straw backed down from demands to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, under which British and Libyan prisoners could serve out their sentences in their home country.
In the second of two leaked letters to Mr. MacAskill, Straw reportedly cited "overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom" in his decision to back down.
Straw "switched his position as Libya used its deal with [multinational oil company BP] as a bargaining chip to insist the Lockerbie bomber was included," writes the Times. "Within six weeks of the government climbdown, Libya had ratified the BP deal."
Straw "admitted the government caved in" reports The Telegraph, another right-leaning British paper. "He said the Libyans deserved 'something' in return for giving up their nuclear weapons program but vehemently denied striking a 'backdoor deal' over Megrahi."
'Red herring'? 'Academic'?
What does Straw have to say about all of this?
He insisted on Sunday that the disclosures were a "red herring."
"The suggestion that at any stage there was some kind of backdoor deal done over [Megrahi's] transfer because of trade is simply untrue," he said. "All this, however, is academic as [Megrahi] was not released under the PTA treaty but quite separately by the Scottish Executive on compassionate grounds."
If it is an academic matter, then clearly some scholarly opposition politicians are eager to enrich themselves intellectually.
Megrahi's not that ill?
A Scottish parliamentarian who used to be a doctor has cast doubt on the claim that Megrahi only has three months to live, something key to his eligibility for release on compassionate grounds. Also, check out our piece on how the Lockerbie bomber's release exposed a US-British divide on justice.