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U.K. officials greased Lockerbie bomber's  release, report finds

Intense political and business pressures by the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi led to last year’s release of the Lockerbie bomber, according to a report released Tuesday.
/ Source: NBC News

Intense political pressures and "commercial warfare" waged by the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi led to last year’s release of the "unrepentant terrorist" who blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, according to a new report prepared by four U.S. senators.

The report was released Tuesday, 22 years to the day after a terrorist bomb exploded aboard  the Pan Am airliner,  killing 270 people — including 189 Americans — in one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11.

An advance copy of the report – titled "Justice Undone: The Release of the Lockerbie Bomber" — was provided to NBC News.

The report finds that senior officials under former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown quietly and repeatedly pressured Scottish authorities to release Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted of the bombing.

They did so in order to protect British business interests in Libya, including a $900 million BP oil deal that the Libyans had threatened to cut off, as well as a $165 million arms sale with a British defense firm that was signed the same month al-Megrahi was freed from prison, the report states. 

“This was a case in which commercial and economic considerations trumped the message of our global fight against terrorism,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of the four senators who commissioned the report by a Senate investigator.

"God forbid there should be another terrorist attack. We have to make it impossible that anything like this injustice takes place again," he added.

'False' and 'flawed' prognosis
The report also concludes that, in releasing Megrahi last year on the grounds that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had only three months to live, Scottish authorities relied on a "false" and "flawed" medical prognosis that was possibly influenced by a doctor hired by the Libyan government. (Although there were recent reports that Megrahi was in a coma, that account has been disputed. As the Senate report notes, he remains alive, reportedly living in a luxury villa in Tripoli.) 

The Senate report calls for a renewed investigation into Megrahi’s release by the State Department and a public apology by both the British and Scottish governments.

That request was rejected this week by both British and Scottish officials. "We totally reject their false interpretation," a Scottish government spokesperson said in an emailed response to NBC News. The decision to release Megrahi "was not based on political, economic or diplomatic considerations, but on the precepts of Scots law and nothing else."

Martin Longden, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington, told NBC that, since the Scottish government ultimately released Megrahi that "it is difficult to see how one can apologize for something that one wasn't responsible for."

However, Longden noted that the government of the current British Prime Minister David Cameron "has been very clear that Megrahi’s release was a mistake."

Cameron has directed an internal British Cabinet review of all documents relating to Megrahi and its report, including some previously unreleased material, may be finished early next year, according to a British government official who requested anonymity.

The Senate report was signed by Menendez along with his Democratic colleague from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, and the two Democratic senators from New York, Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand.

The four, who represent many of the American victims of the bombing, met with Cameron last summer when he visited Washington and demanded that he take further steps to uncover the trail of events that led to Megrahi’s release.

Megrahi’s release has stoked tensions between Washington and London since August 2009, when the former Libyan spy was released from a Scottish prison and received a hero's welcome when he flew back to Libya.

U.S. officials outraged
The release triggered outrage from top U.S. law enforcement officials, such as FBI director Robert Mueller, and strong criticism from the Obama administration.

Scottish officials, however, said they freed him under a provision of their laws that allow for "compassionate release" in light of a medical prognosis that concluded he had only three months to live.

But the Senate report pokes hole in that conclusion, citing top cancer experts who say the three month prognosis was "inaccurate and unsupported by medical science," and was made primarily by two Scottish prison doctors who had no background in prostate cancer. (One, the top doctor in the prison where Megrahi was housed, was a general practitioner and the other, Dr. Andrew Fraser, the director of health for the Scottish Prison Service, was a public health specialist.)

The Senate report states that Megrahi at the time "was not bed-ridden nor so physically frail that he could not undergo chemotherapy or other treatments. … (His) physical symptoms did not support a prognosis of three months and no doctor familiar with prostate cancer could have reasonably made such a prognosis."

Among those who may have influenced the prognosis, the report suggests, were three doctors hired by the Libyan government to support the release of Megrahi on compassionate grounds, one of whom was quoted in British press accounts last summer as saying "we were asked to give an outcome and we did."

That doctor’s report was sent directly to the Scottish prison doctor who worked on the medical prognosis 10 days before the final Scottish medical report on Megrahi, the Senate report says.

The Senate report also cites other factors that influenced the Scottish and British government’s actions on Megrahi.

Britain’s ambassador to Libya, Sir Vincent Fean, "directly participated" in an October 2008 meeting with Scottish government and senior Libyan officials to discuss a "way out" for Megrahi, it states.

Other British officials repeatedly warned the Scots that "British interests, including those of U.K. nationals, British businesses and possibly security cooperation would be damaged — perhaps badly — if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison," according to a statement British Foreign Minister William Hague provided the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

'A major problem'
The Libyan Government successfully freed al-Megrahi by using "commercial warfare," states the report. "Libyan officials made it abundantly clear to Scottish and U.K. government officials that al-Megrahi’s death would be a 'a major problem' and 'bad for relations,' a message that was also delivered through BP officials," Hague said.

While the British government has repeatedly insisted it was the Scots who made the final decision to release Megrahi, the Senate report notes that the British government had the power to block his transfer back to Libya — including denying the Libyans airspace to fly Megrahi home — because the decision affected matters of national security and terrorism.

The report also notes that Scottish officials were being lobbied to release Megrahi by senior officials of the government of Qatar, whose emir was the president of the Arab League.

"We should be most grateful if your office would exercise its discretion and on compassionate and humanitarian grounds take the necessary measures to remove Mr. Al-Megrahi from prison, Qatar's trade mission wrote to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on July 17, 2009, just weeks before the Lockerbie bomber’s release.

At the time, the Senate report notes, Scottish officials were seeking to expand commercial ties with Qatar and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond had been discussing a potential multi-billion dollar loan from the Persian Gulf country. The loan was never consummated, however. 

Officials at the Libyan and Qatari embassies in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.