Libya’s interim government said it would keep open the file on the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, even after death of the sole person convicted of the attack.
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, whose return to a hero’s welcome almost three years ago after his release from a Scottish prison rekindled anger over the bombing that killed 270 people, died at his home yesterday in Tripoli. His sister, Amna, said he was to be buried today.
The bombing, which followed a number of other attacks blamed on Libya including a 1986 blast at a Berlin disco, largely cemented Libya’s pariah status in the world community. Al-Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds by Scottish authorities on Aug. 20, 2009 was seen as a slap in the face by many of the families of the U.S. victims even as some of the Scottish victims’ families remained unconvinced of his guilt.
“I would feel a lot happier if Megrahi had died in prison where he should have died, rather than dying at home with his family around him,” Susan Cohen, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed in the bombing, said in a telephone interview from her home in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. She said her daughter, “with her whole life ahead of her, died a horrible death due to what Megrahi did.”
“This is a lot longer than the three months he was expected to live when they released him on this compassionate release, if that was the real reason,” Cohen said. “I personally think it had more to do with business deals.”
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew at about 31,000 feet killed all 259 aboard, plus 11 on the ground. Investigators said the explosive had been hidden in a cassette recorder packed with clothes in a suitcase in the cargo hold.
Cohen said what is important now is for the U.S. to try to get more details from the new authorities in Libya about the bombing and to see if there is anyone else who could be indicted.
Al-Megrahi’s death does not close the Lockerbie file, Mohamed al-Harizi, the spokesman for Libya’s National Transitional Council, said yesterday in comments reported on the Libya News Agency. He said Libya was committed to investigating all crimes committed under the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, who was ousted and killed after a popular uprising last year backed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes.
A former Libyan intelligence officer, al-Megrahi had always maintained his innocence. He returned from Scotland after serving eight years of a 27-year sentence, arriving on a private Afriqiya Airways flight escorted by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who at the time was the heir-apparent of his father. After he limped off the flight leaning heavily on a cane, state-run television showed footage of the then-Libyan leader embracing him.
At the time of the release, local media described al- Megrahi as a “political hostage” and listed his release among Qaddafi’s achievements during his rule since 1969.
The U.S. and U.K. strongly criticized Libya for the reception it gave al-Megrahi. The Libyan ambassador in Washington, Ali Suleiman Aujali, had defended the welcome. Rather than a terrorist cheered for killing civilians, “Libyans saw a dying man -- believed to be innocent by his countrymen and many others worldwide -- being embraced by his family,” Aujali wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
His family echoed that sentiment again yesterday, with his nephew, who only gave his first name, Abdelsalam, saying that he was “an innocent man.” He was among a group of men keeping journalists away from the walled villa in which al-Megrahi lived in Tripoli’s upscale Damascus neighborhood.
“He’s dead. That’s it,” al-Megrahi’s brother, Abdelnaser, said in a telephone interview. “Now is not the time for talking.”
Indicted in the U.S. and Scotland, al-Megrahi and a second defendant were tried in the Netherlands, a neutral site, under a compromise with Qaddafi. Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001. His co-defendant was found not guilty.
The case symbolized an era when Qaddafi sought to impose his self-styled revolution through militancy, regional fighters and efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was among the reasons that led to U.S. and United Nations sanctions on Libya for sponsoring terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s.
Al-Megrahi was born on April 1, 1952, in Tripoli, according to documents released by the Scottish government. His work as director of Libya’s Center for Strategic Studies gave him the cover to spy on behalf of Libyan intelligence services, according to a profile in the U.K.’s Sunday Express. He was also chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, and prosecutors said that job gave him the opening to carry out the bombing, the Sunday Express said.
Libya’s turnaround in relations with the West began in 1999 when Qaddafi agreed to handover the two men suspected of organizing the bombing. Relations improved steadily between 2002 and 2005, when Qaddafi abandoned a nuclear-arms development effort, pledged to destroy a chemical-weapons stockpile and renounced terrorism.
In 2003, he offered $2.7 billion to compensate families of those killed in the Pan Am bombing. The actions led to an easing of sanctions, improved ties with the U.S. and European nations, and Western investments to expand Libyan oil production.
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Al-Megrahi’s release from prison stirred protests in Scotland and in London, where then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied reports that his government had supported releasing him to improve relations with Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.
Scottish Justice Minister Kenneth MacAskill said at the time that the government in Edinburgh followed “due process” according to local law in releasing al-Megrahi because medical evidence showed the Libyan had less than three months to live. The decision was attacked in the U.S. and by British opposition parties.
His death “ends one chapter of the Lockerbie case, but it does not close the book.” Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday. “However, all information which comes forward will confirm that the decisions of this administration have been in accordance with the due process of law.”
“The Lockerbie case remains a live investigation, and Scotland’s criminal justice authorities have made clear that they will rigorously pursue any new lines of inquiry,” Salmond said. “It has always been the Crown’s position that Mr. Megrahi did not act alone but with others.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, asked about al-Megrahi as he attended a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Chicago, told reporters, “I’ve always been clear he should never have been released from prison.”
He said he saw no reason for any further official inquiry into the al-Megrahi case. “I’m very clear that the court case was properly done and properly dealt with,” Cameron said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alaa Shahine in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org; Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org.