WASHINGTON — BP’s oil spill notoriety is reviving unwelcome attention from Congress on another issue: Whether the oil company sought the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi to help get a $900 million exploration agreement with Libya off the ground.
Soon after al-Megrahi’s release last year, BP acknowledged that it urged the British government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but stressed it didn’t specify his case. It reiterated that stance this week when four U.S. Democratic senators asked the State Department to investigate whether there was a quid pro quo for the Lockerbie bomber’s release.
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“The evidence here may be circumstantial but if I were a prosecutor, I’d love to take this case to a jury,” said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the four lawmakers. While the State Department was noncommittal, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced this week it would hold a hearing on the case this month.
Al-Megrahi served eight years of a life sentence for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board, most of them Americans, and 11 people on the ground. Last August, Scotland’s government released the cancer-striken man on compassionate grounds and he returned to Libya.
As outrage swirled on both sides of the Atlantic, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied giving any assurances to Libya’s leaders that the bomber would be freed in exchange for oil contracts.
BP acknowledged in a statement at the time that it “did bring to the attention of the U.K. government in late 2007 our concerns about the slow progress in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. Like many others, we were aware that delay might have negative consequences for U.K. commercial interests, including ratification of BP’s exploration agreement.”
“We were not talking about the al-Megrahi case because we were fully aware that this was solely a matter for the Scottish Executive and not the U.K. authorities,” BP said.
Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary who freed al-Megrahi, said Friday he had no contact with BP as he decided the Libyan’s fate. “We had no communication from the oil company and we had no support or assistance from the British Government,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the matter Friday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and informed him of congressional interest in al-Megrahi’s release and a possible BP connection.