LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday that his government had put no pressure on Scotland to release the dying Lockerbie bomber early to improve Britain’s trade links with Libya.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, terminally ill with prostate cancer, was flown home to Libya last month and has been moved to a hospital emergency room “in a bad way,” a Libyan official told Reuters on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.
His release angered Washington and many relatives of victims of the attack, and triggered accusations that Britain had put pressure on the Scottish government to release Megrahi to help British companies win trade deals with the country that has Africa’s biggest proven oil reserves.
Brown said he had made it clear to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that it was up to the Scottish government to decide whether to free Megrahi. Scotland has its own judicial system.
“On our part, there was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Gaddafi,” he said at an employment conference in Birmingham, central England.
Megrahi, the only person to have been convicted over the killing of 270 people in the bombing of a Pan Am passenger plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, was serving a life sentence. Scotland freed him on compassionate grounds.
The Scottish government came under fire over its decision to allow Megrahi to return to Libya, losing a vote in the Scottish parliament by 73 votes to 50. But the defeat will not bring down the government.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain had told Libya it did not want Megrahi to die in prison but denied putting pressure on the Scottish government.
“We did not want him to die in prison. No, we weren’t seeking his death in prison,” Miliband told BBC radio. “At every stage we said this is a matter for the Scottish government.”
Documents released by the Scottish government showed Libyan officials had warned London the death of Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have “catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and Britain.”
British firms have become heavily involved in exploring for hydrocarbons in Libya since U.N. sanctions were lifted in 2003 and political patronage remains important for doing business in the north African state.
A U.S. lawyer representing victims’ families said he would file a lawsuit under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to try to force the U.S. government to release documents on any agreements or discussions with Britain about the Lockerbie case.
“I would call upon both governments to start releasing their substantive investigative files to give evidence as to exactly what role Megrahi played and anyone else involved with the bombing,” lawyer Mark Zaid told BBC News.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, who leads in the polls less than a year before a British election, said Megrahi should not have been freed.
He accused the British government of a “catastrophic misjudgment” and said there should be an inquiry into the facts surrounding Megrahi’s release.
“We are now in a shambolic situation where the government has upset one of our most important allies,” Cameron told BBC radio. “They stand accused of double-dealing, saying one thing to the Libyans and something else to the Americans.”
Brown has condemned the rapturous welcome given to Megrahi on his return to Tripoli, but has not said whether he agreed with the decision to free him.
Pictures of Megrahi’s arrival were projected onto a giant screen in Tripoli on Tuesday during celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s coup in 1969.
There were few further details on Megrahi’s condition on Wednesday. A spokesman for Tripoli Medical Center, where Megrahi has been for several days, said he was too ill to speak.
“Because of the treatment he is receiving, his immune system is very weak and he cannot speak to anyone today,” hospital spokesman Omar Senoussi said.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London, Tom Pfeiffer and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; editing by Tim Pearce