US preferred Megrahi be free than in Libyan jail: report

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The United States told Scotland it was "far preferable" to free the Lockerbie bomber than have him transferred to a Libyan jail, leaked documents showed Sunday, amid renewed US criticism of the release.

Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times newspaper reveals that despite Washington's opposition to Scotland's decision last year to free Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohment al-Megrahi, it considered it the most palatable option.

Megrahi was the only person convicted over the 1988 bombing of a US jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 270 people, and his release on compassionate grounds -- he has terminal cancer -- was highly controversial.

The US Senate is re-examining the issue amid claims by US lawmakers that oil giant BP had pressured for Megrahi's release, and anger that he remains alive in Libya despite last August been given just three months to live.

US President Barack Obama's administration has condemned the decision to free Megrahi, but a letter sent by the deputy head of the US embassy in London just days before his release suggests it accepted the move.

The embassy official, Richard LeBaron, wrote to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and justice officials on August 12, 2009 -- a week before Megrahi's release -- saying Washington wanted Megrahi to remain in his Scottish jail.

"Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose," LeBaron wrote.

Megrahi was eligible for transfer to a Libyan jail under a 2007 agreement between Britain and Libya, which BP had lobbied for in a bid to speed up a huge oil exploration deal it was making with the north African state.

In the event, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill rejected Libya's request for a prison transfer for Megrahi, saying the US government was led to believe on his conviction in 2001 that he would serve his sentence in Scotland.

LeBaron added that freeing Megrahi but making him live in Scotland "would mitigate a number of the strong concerns we have expressed with regard to Megrahi's release", according to The Sunday Times.

MacAskill rejected this option on security concerns and finally decided to free Megrahi under the long-standing Scottish policy of compassionate release -- a decision he insists had nothing to do with BP.

© 2010 AFP

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