LONDON (Reuters) - Scotland’s most senior politician said on Wednesday there was no conspiracy in the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, following U.S. questions over oil company BP Plc’s influence on the process.
First Minister Alex Salmond denied the firm played a role in the release last August of the Libyan convicted of blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
“We had no contact with BP either written or verbal or any lobbying of that kind as far as the process of compassionate release was concerned,” Salmond told BBC Radio 4.
He reiterated the denial in a letter sent to U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which is due to hold a hearing next week into the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.
The Senate committee is inviting BP chief executive Tony Hayward to testify, along with Mark Allen, who has been an advisor to the company, a Senate source told Reuters in Washington. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.
British diplomats in the U.S. capital suggested there may be written submissions to the panel from the British government and Scottish officials.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who met U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday, has condemned the release.
Scotland, which has broad independent legal powers, released Megrahi as it believed he had only months to live because of prostate cancer. He returned to Tripoli to a hero’s welcome and is still alive.
BP, facing intense U.S. criticism over an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has confirmed it lobbied the British government in late 2007 over a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya, further angering U.S. senators.
Salmond, who leads the pro-independence Scottish National Party and heads a minority government in Scotland’s devolved assembly, defended the decision to release Megrahi.
“I am aware that the U.S. government and many relatives of those who died, particularly in the U.S., profoundly disagree with the Scottish government’s decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds,” Salmond wrote in the letter.
“I do not expect anything I say will change that but I do think it is important to put on record the background to that decision and reassure you that it was made with integrity and following a clear legal process.”
Salmond criticized former Prime Minister Tony Blair, telling BBC radio that Blair was negotiating on prisoner exchanges with Libya at the same time as discussing business deals in 2007 in what the Scottish leader called a “tainted process.”
“I think it was deeply unfortunate that you should negotiate a prisoner transfer agreement on a judicial matter on the same day that you sign an agreement on oil exploration and concessions,” Salmond said. “But that’s what the then Prime Minister Tony Blair did in June 2007.”
Blair visited Libya in late May 2007, a few weeks before he stood down as prime minister. At that time, BP signed a major natural gas exploration agreement with Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation.
Blair’s office disputed Salmond’s version of events, pointing out that the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya was finalized only in 2009, after Blair had left office, and was not a factor in Megrahi’s release.
“This is a rather unsubtle attempt by Alex Salmond to drag Tony Blair into a decision that was actually taken by the Scottish Executive more than two years after he stopped being Prime Minister,” said a spokesman for Blair.
“Megrahi’s release had nothing to do with the Prisoner Transfer Agreement which was instead part of a proposed package of agreements that would help deepen judicial and law enforcement cooperation between the UK and Libya, improving the UK’s security and helping our national counter-terrorism effort,” he added.
BP has confirmed it lobbied the then Labour government in late 2007 to express concern over slow progress in finalizing the prisoner agreement. BP has said it knew this could hurt a BP offshore oil drilling deal requiring approval by Libya.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by David Stamp