Playing politics with Libya and Lockerbie

The 1999 Lockerbie trial arrangements, including a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands, was a brilliant example of British diplomacy at its most creative, for which Robin Cook and FCO officials share the credit. The negotiations following Blair's visit to Libya, on the contrary, seem to have been the height of incompetence (I was involved in neither). Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds, politically neutral, would naturally have been a positive point in Britain and Scotland's relations with Libya, but against all the odds it has been turned by politicians mainly interested in scoring points off each other into a blazing row which could even turn out to be a serious setback.

The "revelation" that Jack Straw, negotiating the prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya, was obliged to drop a paragraph specifically excluding Megrahi from its provisions proves yet again that nobody bothered to consult the experts or the record. When the Libyans first argued that Megrahi should be released under the PTA, the British should simply have reminded them that the 1999 agreement setting up the trial of the two Libyan suspects spelled out that "The suspects, if convicted, will serve their prison sentence in Scotland." This was confirmed in a letter from the Libyan foreign minister to the secretary general of the UN in 1999, and was a key Libyan requirement: the Libyans were naturally fearful that the suspects would otherwise be handed over to the US and end up on death row. The agreement could only be varied with the consent of the parties, including the US government, whose consent would clearly not be forthcoming.

If this point had been made, it would not have been necessary to mention the other conditions for releasing Megrahi under the PTA: Scottish consent; Megrahi's appeal to be abandoned; the Crown prosecution appeal against the sentence also to be abandoned.

Look again at the accusations that the coincidence of the PTA negotiations and the BP negotiations mean that the government (which government? British or Scottish?) released Megrahi for the sake of trade or oil. There is not a scrap of evidence that this is so. The accusers go on to demand details of all the ministerial visits made to Libya over this period, as though they were some kind of guilty secret. All this would only make sense to someone who thinks that the British government should stop supporting British trade (something it has been doing since the time of King Henry VIII's ambassador to Ivan the Terrible), and leave the field clear for the Italians, the French, the Americans, the Russians and so on. Who really thinks that is a good idea?

Again, look at the expressions of shock and disgust from the Scottish, British and American governments at the "hero's welcome" given to Megrahi on his return to Libya. As Saif Gaddafi and others have convincingly argued, it wasn't a hero's welcome but an appropriate response to someone generally believed to be the innocent victim of injustice. What on earth did anyone expect? The Libyans themselves compared it to the welcome given to the Bulgarian medics when they went home from Libya. This comparison will shock those who remember only the disgraceful way in which the Bulgarians had been treated in Libya, but perhaps not greatly shock those who remember the ghastly background to the story, 400 Libyan children infected with HIV. Think what happens when a British citizen returns home from a foreign jail. Not too many people ask questions about innocence or guilt. Most of us don't see much beyond a happy ending.

President Obama went so far as to suggest that Megrahi should have been put under house arrest in Tripoli. In addition to being an outstanding example of the US setting up as world policeman, that idea raises the question under what legal arrangements Megrahi could have been arrested – or does Obama want to see Gaddafi arresting his citizens without legal arrangements?

And latest of all, we hear Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Libya, suggesting on the Today programme this morning that Megrahi should not have been released until we got satisfaction from the Libyans over the investigation into the murder of PC Fletcher, in other words that we should engage in a hostage war with Libya, choosing as our asset a hostage who is on the point of death. It is not often that one hears a policy proposal which in my opinion seems simultaneously immoral, illegal and ineffective.

Oliver Miles, a retired diplomat and the chairman of MEC International.