BP played role in prisoner transfer that included Lockerbie bomber

Brett Michael Dykes

Just when BP was hoping to turn the corner on the catastrophic Gulf oil spill — albeit with a twice-delayed stress test for its new well cap — comes another gigantic PR setback for the troubled oil giant. Not only is the company responsible for a historic ecological calamity, as it turns out — it also sought to secure a prisoner transfer that included the release of a convicted terrorist.

Responding to pressure from U.S. lawmakers for investigations into its role in the controversial 2009 release of convicted Libyan terrorist Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, BP produced a carefully worded statement referencing a general push for the transfer of Libyan prisoners held in Scotland and the U.K. — Megrahi among them — in 2007. The company took pains, however, to point out the final decision by U.K. and Scottish officials to release the bomber last year took place without any direct input from BP representatives.

The oil giant is treading a fine line in its official statement — and for good reason, since the charge of interceding on Megrahi's behalf could be enormously damaging.  In its statement, the company said it feared that prolonging the sentences of the prisoners in the transfer might damage the company's "commercial interests." The company was at the time negotiating with the Libyan government for an offshore drilling deal that stood to enhance BP's bottom line by as much as $20 billion.

One-hundred-eighty-nine Americans were killed when a bomb detonated on Pan-Am Flight 103 as it flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. All the 259 passengers and crew on the craft perished in the explosion, and 11 Lockerbie residents died after being struck by falling plane parts. In 2001, Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish court for his role in the attack, and sentenced to life imprisonment; he obtained a compassionate medical leave last year when physicians mistakenly forecast he would die of cancer within three months. His prognosis has since improved, and he is healthy enough to live another 10 years, doctors say.

“It is matter of public record that in late 2007 BP told the U.K. Government that we were concerned about the slow progress that was being made in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya,” BP said in a statement released last night. “We were aware that this could have a negative impact on U.K. commercial interests, including the ratification by the Libyan Government of BP's exploration agreement." But the oil giant denied that it exerted any direct influence on the release, saying, "BP was not involved in any discussions with the U.K. Government or the Scottish Government about the release of Mr al Megrahi."

At a press conference Wednesday, four United States senators — Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) — called for BP to suspend its proposed drilling operations in Libyan waters until a full investigation into its influence on the decision to release Megrahi could be made.

"Until BP’s deal with Libya is properly investigated, this project off the coast of Libya should not break ground," said Sen. Schumer. "If BP is truly dealing in good faith and has nothing to hide, it should cooperate with such an investigation. It is almost too disgusting to fathom that BP had a possible role in securing the release of the Lockerbie terrorist in return for an oil-drilling deal."

BP said today that it has no intention of curbing its plans to begin drilling in Libya's Gulf of Sidra in the coming weeks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly will look into the the accusations against BP.