lockerbie, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, lockerbie bomber
Press Association/AP
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi boards a plane at Glasgow Airport, bound for Tripoli, after
being released on compassionate grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.

The Fallout From the Lockerbie Convict's Release

August 25, 2009 03:00 PM
by Liz Colville
The release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi by the Scottish government last week has had political and emotional ramifications across borders.

Megrahi's Warm Homecoming in Libya

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a 57-year-old Libyan native, was freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government Aug. 20 because he is suffering from prostate cancer and only has a few months to live. He had been serving 270 life sentences in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Megrahi, who is married and has five children, has continued to proclaim his innocence in the bombing, in which a plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew members and 11 people on the ground.

He flew home to Tripoli, the capital of Libya, from Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 20, and was warmly welcomed by fellow citizens and by the leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. Libyan television footage showed Gaddafi shaking hands with, embracing and talking with Megrahi.

Megrahi will also "be at the centre of next month's celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the military coup that swept" Gaddafi into power, The Guardian reports, citing Arab news sources.

But Megrahi dropped his second appeal—his first came soon after his sentencing in 2001 and was rejected—shortly before he was released, sparking speculation that he had been pressured to do so. The Scottish government "denied any pressure had been placed on the Libyan to drop his second appeal," the BBC reported prior to his release from prison.

But Christine Grahame, a Scottish National Party MP, disagreed, telling the BBC she thought Megrahi likely came under pressure. "There are a number of vested interests who have been deeply opposed to this appeal continuing as they know it would go a considerable way towards exposing the truth behind Lockerbie," Grahame said.

Opinion & Analysis: Lockerbie case is diplomatic quagmire

Megrahi's release, and particularly the reception he received upon arrival in Libya, has stirred debate in Scotland, England and the United States. Government officials who had previously voiced their concern over Scotland's decision have stepped up their statements.

On the other hand, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill has repeatedly defended the decision to release Megrahi, The Guardian reported Aug. 24. Further, Scottish MP Christine Grahame, quoted above, believes that Megrahi "had nothing to do with the bombing of Pan Am 103" and has called for "a full public inquiry into the bombing," according to the BBC.

To complicate the diplomatic situation, Gaddafi is planning to visit to the U.S. for the first time in September to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Gaddafi reportedly wishes to stay at a "Libyan-owned estate" in the "upscale community" of Englewood, New Jersey. But members of the town, including neighbors of the estate and public officials, have declared he is not welcome there, The Associated Press reports. New Jersey lost 33 residents in the Lockerbie bombing.

The ambiguous, more than 20-year-old case is a struggle for the victims' families, the Telegraph's Auslan Cramb noted prior to Megrahi's release. A majority of the American families "are convinced of his guilt and believe he should die in jail in Scotland," whereas the majority of the British families "believe he is innocent and support his release."

Two British relatives of victims spoke to the Telegraph earlier this month, expressing their frustration with the legal process. "At the moment there is no other process or procedure ongoing to tell us how the bombing was carried out, why it was done, the motivation for it and who ordered it," Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter was a victim, told the Telegraph. "It's been nearly 21 years since the event and where are we? Nowhere," Martin Cadman, whose son Bill also died in the bombing, added.

Following the Lockerbie incident, Libya was hit with heavy sanctions by the U.N. because the country's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, chose not to extradite suspects, according to Time magazine.

In 2003, with his country suffering from international economic sanctions, Gaddafi pulled Libya out of isolation and took responsibility for the Pan Am terrorist attack, paying more than $2.7 billion to the families of the victims, Time reported. Months later, Gaddafi halted efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction, according to the BBC's profile of the leader.

But now, the Libyan leader's response to Megrahi appears staged to some. "Seasoned diplomats believe the timing of the event, in effect Gaddafi's chance to showcase himself to the world, and Megrahi's release, are more than coincidental," The Guardian writes.

There have also been rumors that Libya, which is rich in oil supplies, is working with the U.K. in a trade deal that may have prompted the release of Megrahi. On Aug. 25, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown "finally broke his silence" on the Lockerbie case, stating that the U.K. "had done no deal with Libya," the Times of London reported. Prime Minister Brown added that he was "angry and repulsed" by the way Megrahi was received in Libya.

Key Player: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was born in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in 1952. The father of five lived in the suburbs of Tripoli in his father-in-law's house before the events of December 1988, the BBC explains in a profile of Megrahi.

Proficient in English after spending time traveling and studying in the U.S. and U.K., Megrahi allegedly worked as the director of Libya's Centre for Strategic Studies, which, according to the FBI, "gave him cover to act as an intelligence officer for the Libyan Intelligence Services (JSO)," the BBC reports.

Following that position, Megrahi was the chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA), which prosecutors said allowed him the freedom to travel to locations including Malta, where LAA had an office, and Zurich, where the timing device for the bomb found on Pam Am 103 was made. Clothing wrapped around the bomb was traced to a store in Malta, then to Megrahi, the BBC adds.

Qwidget is loading...

Background: The Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

In 2001, Megrahi was convicted of the murder of 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in late December 1988. The plane was bound for New York from London; 259 passengers and crew members and 11 people on the ground were killed, The New York Times explains.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines