Straw reveals truth: there are talks on fate of Megrahi

12:01am Saturday 14th July 2007

By KEVIN SCHOFIELD

A senior member of Gordon Brown's cabinet yesterday confirmed publicly for the first time that talks are under way about where the Lockerbie bomber will serve the rest of his prison sentence.

The comments by Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, on the possible transfer of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi back to Libya, came as he repaired divisions between Holyrood and Westminster on the issue.

Mr Straw met First Minister Alex Salmond and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in Edinburgh yesterday and later contradicted repeated statements by Downing Street last month that Megrahi's fate had been excluded from a memorandum of understanding signed between Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, and Colonel Gaddafi.

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Libyan officials have insisted that they were told the bomber's situation was the main reason for the deal in the desert.

Mr Salmond picked his first major political row with No 10 after learning, almost accidentally, that the memorandum on prisoner transfer had been approved without consulting the Scottish Executive.

However, Mr Straw, who is also UK Justice Secretary, said yesterday: "I discussed the issue with Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill and said we were very ready to consult and involve the Scottish Executive in appropriate level discussion about the prisoner transfer agreement.

"Scotland has always been a separate criminal justice system and different prison system, so that gives it an important locus in the interim discussions that we will then take forward with the Libyan government. It's my view that this matter can be resolved satisfactorily."

Mr Straw denied that Westminster would make decisions without the "concurrence" of the executive. He added: "The prisoner transfer agreements have to take account of the rules which relate to sentencing at the local level, so the executive have a first call on the approach to negotiations. The final call has to be agreed with the executive."

A spokesman for Mr Salmond last night welcomed Mr Straw's pledge. He said: "The legal position is quite clear - prisoner transfer decisions are a matter for Scottish ministers.

"What Jack Straw is saying is: that being the case, he wants to adopt a better approach than we had before in that Scottish ministers should be involved in the whole process."

Last month, Megrahi was granted fresh leave to take his case to a second appeal, based on new evidence and previously undisclosed statements that undermine the credibility of the main witness in his trial.

Moves thought to be part of a complex international diplomatic jigsaw, which could see him serving the remainder of his sentence pending appeal in a Libyan jail, appeared last night to be coming closer to fruition, with the European Union indicating that six medical staff sentenced to death in Libya could soon be released.

Sources have told The Herald that Libya firmly believed the transfer of the Lockerbie bomber was on the negotiating table in exchange for the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor facing the death sentence for allegedly infecting 427 children with HIV.

The medics claim they were tortured and forced to confess to the crimes. Their final appeal will be heard on Monday. EU, US and British negotiators have spent years trying to rescind the verdict and it is thought that an agreement has been reached to pay millions of pounds in compensation in return for their freedom.

Cecilia Sarkozy, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, met Gaddafi and the families of the children on Thursday. Her aide yesterday revealed that the families were "ready to pardon" the medics and that Gaddafi appeared to look favourably at their arguments.

Relations between the US, UK, and Libya have improved significantly in recent times. However, four US Democrat senators, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said yesterday that they intend to block the confirmation of President Bush's choice for US ambassador to Libya.

The nomination of Gene Cretz is a step in restoring normal diplomacy. But the Democrats say they will invoke a Senate procedure to hold up the nomination until Libya pays full compensation for Lockerbie and the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986.

Gaddafi agreed to pay $2.7bn in compensation to the Lockerbie victims' families, but the full amount has not yet been paid.

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