LONDON — In an admission likely to prolong the controversy over the release of the only man convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing,Britain’s justice minister told an interviewer that trade deals, especially in oil, had been a “very big part” of Britain’s decision to include the bomber in a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.
In an interview published Saturday by The Daily Telegraph, Jack Straw, the justice minister and a senior member of Prime MinisterGordon Brown’s cabinet, said trade deals with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government in Libya weighed heavily in his decision to abandon his opposition to the release of the bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.
Asked by a Telegraph reporter whether trade and oil were part of the cabinet decision to include Mr. Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, Mr. Straw replied: “Yes, it was a very big part of that. I’m unapologetic about that. Libya was a rogue state. We wanted to bring it back into the fold and trade is an essential part of it — and subsequently there was the BP deal.”
The reference was to a $900 million oil exploration agreement between Libya and BP in January 2008. BP, Britain’s largest company, beat out a field of other international energy companies seeking to gain a foothold in Libya’s rich oil fields after the lifting of international sanctions — imposed in part because of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, a Scottish border town, on Dec. 21 1988, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
Mr. Straw’s statement that oil deals were part of the calculations in negotiations with Libya over Mr. Megrahi stood uneasily with the British government’s previous statements. Mr. Brown insisted in a speech on Wednesday that there had been “no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil” involved in Mr. Megrahi’s release.
Further, he said his government had played no direct part in the final decision by the Scottish regional government to free Mr. Megrahi on compassionate grounds related to his diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer.
The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, said that in reaching his decision to free the bomber, he had decided not to transfer Mr. Megrahi to Libya under the prisoner agreement because of objections from the United States. Instead, he used his own power under Scottish law to grant a compassionate release.
But the uproar on both sides of the Atlantic that accompanied Mr. Megrahi’s return to Libya left the Brown government scrambling to explain what its attitude to Mr. Megrahi’s application for release had been, and to answer suggestions that it was happy to have Scotland free the bomber because of Britain’s efforts to secure lucrative oil deals from the Qaddafi government.
That has led to a tangle of statements and explanations from London, and charges by the Conservative opposition leader, David Cameron, that Mr. Brown and his ministers have been deceitful in their dealings with Washington and their public statements at home. Last week, the government and the Scottish authorities released, separately, thick files of correspondence between them on the issue, each effectively seeking to placate the anger of the Obama administration and American families of bombing victims.