British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office today denied that his government agreed to make the convicted Lockerbie bomber eligible for release in exchange for an oil contract with Libya, as reported yesterday by the center-right British newspaper, The Times.
"The central assertion in this story is completely untrue and deeply misleading," Mr. Brown's office said in response to the story.
British justice secretary Jack Straw – who admitted yesterday that Brown's government backed down from its insistence that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi be excluded from any prisoner trade agreement hashed out during the now-famous 2007 'deal in the desert' between Libya and Britain – has called the issue "academic."
Why? Because Scotland has repeatedly insisted that it made the decision to release Mr. Megrahi on compassionate grounds, or as Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calls them, "justice grounds."
"What I do know, and what I can state categorically ... is that these deals — if such deals existed — played no part whatsoever in the decision that [Scottish Justice Minister] Kenny MacAskill took to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds," Ms. Sturgeon said on Monday. "That was a decision taken entirely on justice grounds, and there were no influences relating to political or economic interests that played any part in that."
But this doesn't seem to have quelled public interest in the story, especially from families of the victims.
Pamela Dix, secretary of the victims' group UK Families Flight 103, whose brother was killed on Pam Am Flight 103, told the British TV news channel ITN: "I think it would be naive to feel that international trade had nothing to do with relations between Libya and the United Kingdom and discussions around Megrahi. For Jack Straw to indicate that it is academic to discuss the prisoner transfer agreement because Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds is an insult."
Nor has it stopped opposition politicians in both England and Scotland from seizing the moment to stick it to their respective governments.
They smell blood in the water.
Playing politics with 'terrorist-for-trade' label?
Brown's Labour government "will not now escape the suspicion of a terrorist-for-trade deal unless they agree to the transparency of a full inquiry," Liberal Democrat Edward Davey said. "The Prime Minister can no longer hide behind (Scottish government) compassion for a sick man when it seems compassion for commerce was at the center of his government's thinking."
"We need a select committee inquiry so ministers and officials can be questioned about exactly what was said and done over relations with Libya," said David Lidington of Britain's Conservative party.
If the committee were to launch an inquiry when parliamentarians return to the Commons on Oct. 12, Conservative party MP Malcolm Moss said it would be possible to question former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was responsible for securing a prisoner transfer agreement with Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Some Labour MPs may resist such an inquiry, reports the Times, "but if public anger at the bomber’s release grows, they may find their stance untenable."
The Scottish Parliament is set to debate the decision to release Megrahi on Wednesday.
Quit bashing Scotland!
Meanwhile, Scots have had enough of the international second-guessing.
"Rather than make Scots lose all faith in their leaders, the international mudslinging may have the paradoxical effect of stiffening Scottish spines," reports Newsweek, citing new polls that "suggest voters resent the overseas interference."
Despite Scottish opposition politicians' attempts to blast the government for marring Scotland's good name, "all this might ultimately help the country's ruling nationalists, who have proposed a referendum on Scottish independence to take place next year."
And Scots can feel good that antiapartheid icon Nelson Mandela on Sunday backed the decision to release Megrahi. Of all the world figures to back that decision, you'd be hard-pressed to find one more respected than the man affectionately known as Madiba.
Will it stop the flow of questions surrounding the sensitive topic, though? Unlikely.
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.