BP, the Lockerbie bomber and a cynical stunt
By digging up an old story about BP’s involvement in the Lockerbie bomber’s release, US Senators have got the publicity they craved
Just as BP appeared to be reaching the endgame in its three-month operation to cap the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a skeleton has fallen out of its cupboard that threatens to shred the British oil giant’s reputation even further.
In a seemingly unrelated issue, four US Senators have been attempting to secure Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s return to a Scottish prison to serve out the remainder of his life sentence, from which he was released on compassionate grounds in August 2009. Their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
That was before the Sunday Times reported two weeks ago that when Libyan authorities commissioned Professor Karol Sikora to examine the prostate cancer-stricken al-Megrahi in jail last year, they had been hoping he would conclude the bomber only had three months to live.
"It was clear that three months was what they were aiming for," Sikora said. "Three months was the critical point. On the balance of probabilities, I felt I could sort of justify [that]." He added that in reality al-Megrahi might live for 10 or 20 years.
Spotting a new front in their year-long battle, Senators Charles Schumer, Robert Menendez, Kirsten Gillibrand and Frank Lautenberg wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They asked her to secure the return of al-Megrahi to prison because Sikora was "encouraged" to provide a life expectancy of three months.
In an accompanying press release, the Senators suggested that Scotland had been pressured by the UK government to release al-Megrahi "to assist the UK with an oil deal with Libya".
The Senators' appeal was not widely reported. However, somebody must have noticed that the "oil deal" involved a certain highly unpopular oil giant, BP. A day later, the Senators modified their petition, sending a second letter to Clinton. This time they implicated BP in the release of al-Megrahi, saying the company had told the British government that delays in setting the bomber free could throw an oil deal into jeopardy.
The Senators now had a story with legs. They called for an investigation into BP's involvement: "Answering this crucial question will help complete our understanding of the Scottish court's decision to release this murderer and will help us understand if BP might use blood money to pay claims for damage in the Gulf of Mexico," they wrote.
So the Senators have succeeded in linking the two most poisonous blights on US-UK relations of the past year, and guaranteed maximum publicity for their campaign. Clinton says she will "look into" the request.
BP and its CEO Tony Hayward, for their part, could be forgiven for being a little bemused that Senators have grabbed yet another stick to beat them now that they are so close to capping the oil spill.
BP openly admits it told the British government in 2007 that delays in releasing al-Megrahi were an obstacle to an oil deal. Any investigation into the affair will only reveal what is already known: that Hayward's predecessor John Browne wasn't the only oil exec to negotiate with Libya (Rex Tillerson, the current CEO of ExxonMobil, met Gaddafi in 2005), and that Shell and ExxonMobil beat BP to Libyan oil licenses anyway.
Al-Megrahi would have been released with or without BP's lobbying. Although trade deals were an important factor, far more pressing for the UK government was the fact that al-Megrahi was preparing an appeal against his conviction that may well have resulted in an embarrassing acquittal.
In truth the focus on BP's relationship with Libya is a cynical publicity stunt by four US Senators who, quite understandably, are attempting to win what they see as justice for their constituents. ·
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