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Lockerbie bomber release: Lord Mandelson, his wealthy friends and the Libyan connection

Sunday Telegraph

Lord Mandelson, the Business Secreatry, is facing growing questions over his links with Saif Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi, following the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

By Andrew Alderson and Alastair Jamieson
Published: 9:00PM BST 22 Aug 2009

In a destination that developers predict will soon make the tax haven of Monaco look “second rate”, it was described as the most glamorous party ever seen in the Adriatic.

As the champagne flowed, fireworks lit up the night sky, a dozen private Lear jets were parked on a nearby runway and giant yachts were moored offshore.

The fabulously wealthy guests at the appropriately-named Splendid Hotel included Prince Albert of Monaco and Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate.

Also present were Oleg Deripaska, the Russian entrepreneur, and Nat Rothschild, the British financier – both close allies of Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary.

And who hosted the 37th birthday party in June in one of the trendiest locations in Montenegro – a newly-independent nation whose cause Lord Mandelson has repeatedly championed?

The unlikely host – hundreds of miles from his African homeland – was Saif Gadaffi, the son of the Libyan leader, who, it emerged last week, has met Lord Mandelson twice in the past four months.

At at least one of those meetings, the fate of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was discussed.

It was Mr Gaddafi too who, much to the anger of the US and some victims’ relatives, stood alongside Megrahi and ensured he was given a “hero’s welcome” as his plane touched down in the Libyan capital of Tripoli late on Thursday night – just hours after he was released by the Scottish government from a life sentence handed down in 2001 for the terrorist attack that claimed 270 lives in December 1988.

Intriguingly, Mr Gaddafi has publicly thanked the British – as well as the Scottish – government for Megrahi’s release.

The celebrations in Libya, condemned by President Obama, appeared this weekend to be running the risk of provoking a backlash from Western governments.

Before gaining his freedom, Megrahi, who has always protested his innocence, dropped his second appeal against his conviction: indeed some suspect this was a secret condition of his release.

His second appeal began in 2007 after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission uncovered six separate grounds for believing the conviction may have been a miscarriage of justice.

Under Scottish law, Megrahi’s family could have continued the appeal posthumously, raising the prospect of an acquittal that would cause embarrassment in Scotland over the handling of the original trial and raise fresh questions over who was really responsible for the bombing.

It was only last year, after being once again caught out misleading the British electorate, that Lord Mandelson, who has twice been forced to resign from Government, publicly pledged to choose his friends more carefully.

In October 2008, just days after his return to the Cabinet to shore up Gordon Brown’s ailing leadership, Lord Mandelson admitted that his links to Mr Deripaska, the billionaire Russian oligarch, stretched back years more than he had earlier admitted.

In a letter to a national newspaper, Lord Mandelson, the former EU Trade Commissioner, wrote: “I should point out that in managing my department’s business as Secretary of State I will, of course, in line with the Ministerial Code, ensure that no conflict of interest, or perception of such, arises from any of my past or indeed future contacts.”

On Saturday, however, just 48 hours after Megrahi was freed on compassionate grounds by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, Lord Mandelson’s critics were again questioning his judgement, and his choice of foreign friends and acquaintances.

Lord Mandelson, who denies acting improperly or trying to influence Mr MacAskill’s decision, most recently met Mr Gaddafi “fleetingly” at the Rothschild’s family’s Greek £30 million estate on Corfu – just a week before it emerged that Megrahi was set to be freed because he is suffering from aggressive and terminal prostate cancer.

According to Lord Mandelson’s spokesman, the Business Secretary also met the met the man tipped to be the next leader of Libya at an official engagement in London in May this year.

Less than a decade ago Libya was a pariah nation that was not only blamed for Lockerbie but also had a long history of sponsoring international terrorism.

It had also committed another atrocity on British soil, the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.

However, Tony Blair and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the leaders of their respective nations, pragmatically put their mutual antagonism to one side six years ago. Britain and the West’s sanctions had worn Libya down economically and diplomatically, while Britain was eager to exploit Libya’s massive oil reserves.

So, shortly after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie attack in 2003 and agreed to compensate the families of the victims, Britain put down a resolution to remove the sanctions and, the following year, Mr Blair extended “the hand of friendship” to Colonel Gaddafi, who has now ruled Libya for 40 years. Huge trade deals followed for BP, Shell and others.

More recently, Britain has gone out of its way to embrace Libya. The Duke of York, Britain’s Special Representative for Trade and Investment, has forged close links, visiting the country three times in the last year alone.

Aides say Prince Andrew “quite possibly” discussed Megrahi’s case with Libyan officials in the past, but they deny the Queen’s son pushed for his release.

His plans for a further trip to Libya are in doubt following British anger at Megrahi’s joyful reception in Libya last week.

Saif Gadaffi, 37, the favoured of Colonel Gadaffi’s seven sons, is an architect, businessman and politician, who was educated at the London School of Economics.

Although he heads a substantial family-run charitable foundation, he has also inherited his father’s ruthless streak: two years ago he admitted that six Bulgarian medics who were imprisoned for allegedly deliberately infecting children with Aids had been tortured into giving “confessions” because they had previously told “lies”.

The medics, who later withdrew their admissions, were pardoned on their return to their homeland.

In recent years, however, Mr Gadaffi has forged a firm friendship with Mr Deripaska and Mr Rothschild, Lord Mandelson’s friends.

Mr Rothschild hosted a party Mr Gaddafi in New York late last year. More recently, Mr Gadaffi has developed personal links with the Business Secretary himself.

Indeed, Lord Mandelson’s spokesman said this weekend that he hopes to see more of the Libyan politician in the coming months.

What is not known is the extent of the personal business interests that Mr Gaddafi, who has a penchant for pet tigers, now has in Montenegro, a nation that Lord Mandelson has supported during its three years since gaining independence.

Libya has significant business links in Montenegro, and judging from his recent birthday party, Mr Gaddafi is clearly quite a “player” in the country.

Mr Deripaska and Mr Rothschild have invested heavily in the £500 million-plus Porto Montenegro project to make the country the “premier marina destination in the Mediterranean”.

Lord Mandelson, as EU Trade Commissioner, championed Montenegro’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) saying last year: “Montenegro has made remarkable progress in preparing for WTO entry…. The EU is a strong supporter of Montenegro’s entry into the WTO, and is proud to be the first partner to conclude bilateral accession talks.”

But, crucially, did Lord Mandelson, who in 2006 ended EU trade tariffs on aluminium thereby hugely benefiting Mr Deripaska’s business interests, lobby for Mr Megrahi’s release?

Definitely not, insists his spokesman: “Peter Mandelson had no input,” he said, stressing suggestions of a conflict of interest were “farcical”.

Yet Norman Baker, the Lib Dem MP, feared Lord Mandelson had been guilty of “back-channel diplomacy” and The Sunlight Centre for Open Politics, a campaigning group, has reported the Business Secretary to Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, for an alleged conflict of interest contrary to the Ministerial Code.

A spokesman for the group said: “Ministers must ensure that no conflict arise, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise.”

He added that with such an emotive subject as Lockerbie many Britons would see Lord Mandelson as interfering in an issue that was best left to diplomats.

Tory MPs are also concerned by the Business Secretary’s actions. Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Harwich and Clacton, said: “It looks like Lord Mandelson’s array of rich and powerful friends involved with this project have all benefited from decisions he made when he was Trade Commissioner.

“People will rightly ask what decisions he has made as Business Secretary and whether he has once again allowed his private life to mix with controversial political decisions.”

additional reporting by Predrag Milic in Montenegro

Sunday Telegraph Article

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