CNN said it tracked down Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in Tripoli Sunday, in the care of relatives and reportedly “surviving on oxygen and an intravenous drip.” A month ago, Libyan television images showed Megrahi, frail and in a wheelchair, at a pro-regime rally.
Two hundred and fifty-nine people onboard Pan Am Flight 103 and another 11 on the ground were killed when the London-New York plane was bombed over Lockerbie in Scotland. Among the dead were 189 American citizens.
Two years ago, the former Libyan intelligence official serving a life sentence for the attack was freed from a Scottish prison, after doctors said he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and gave him three months to live. The Obama administration, which had urged against his release, appealed to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to ensure Megrahi’s reception was a low-key affair. Instead, he was given what was described as a hero’s welcome.
Megrahi’s survival long beyond the doctors’ prognosis angered many in the U.S. and Britain, and the collapse of the Gaddafi regime has prompted new calls on both sides of the Atlantic for Megrahi to be returned to prison. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney last week said he hoped the new Libyan authorities would extradite Megrahi “so justice can finally be done.”
Hours before CNN found him, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) justice spokesman, Mohammed al-Alagi, told reporters Libyan citizens would not be deported.
“Al-Megrahi has already been judged once and he will not be judged again,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “We do not hand over Libyan citizens. Gaddafi does.”
Also on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told British broadcasters that the TNC chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, had given him an undertaking during a recent visit to Britain that the new government would cooperate fully with London over both the Lockerbie case and the still-unsolved shooting death of a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, shot to death outside the city's Libyan Embassy in London in 1984.
(After the 25 year-old constable was shot while policing a protest outside the mission, an 11-day armed siege ensued during which police could not enter the building because it enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Britain then allowed 30 people inside the mission to leave and fly to Libya, and diplomatic relations were broken off for the next 15 years.
They were restored in 1999, after the Gaddafi regime formally admitted responsibility for Fletcher’s death and promised to cooperate in a police investigation. No-one was ever indicted, but British media last week a junior diplomat at the embassy at the time, Abdulmagid Salah Ameri, as the prime suspect.)
The fugitive Libyan leader may yet be captured and surrendered to the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Gaddafi, along with his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and intelligence chief, for alleged crimes against humanity arising from the armed suppression of this year’s rebellion. Even if he lands in the dock, however, unless he volunteers information about the Lockerbie bombing questions about the affair will remain unanswered.
Megrahi’s chances of shedding more light on the affair are slipping away, and may be gone.
Miscarriage of justice concerns
Throughout the May 2000-Jan. 2001 trial, held under Scottish law in the Netherlands, Megrahi pleaded innocent (see here for a detailed timeline of the Lockerbie investigation, trial and subsequent events).
The prosecution case was that Megrahi, who was based in Malta, planted the bomb in a suitcase there. It was loaded onto a flight to Frankfurt, and transferred as unaccompanied baggage to a feeder flight for Pan Am 103, the London Heathrow to JFK flight.
A key prosecution witness was a Maltese store owner, who supposedly sold Megrahi clothing that was packed in the suitcase containing the bomb.
In 2007, the independent Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), which had been investigating the case since 2003, questioned the reliability of the store keeper’s evidence. While the commission said it found no basis to believe that evidence had been fabricated by police or official agencies, it concluded that there “may have been a miscarriage of justice” and recommended that Megrahi be allowed to go ahead with an appeal against his conviction.
Days before he was allowed to fly home in the summer of 2009, however, Megrahi requested that the High Court in Edinburgh drop his appeal. On Aug 18 it agreed; on Aug. 20 Megrahi was freed and flew to Libya.
Some of Megrahi’s supporters suspect that Gaddafi sacrificed him – and another man handed over for trial in 1999 but later acquitted – to pave the way for the lifting of U.N. sanctions and his international rehabilitation.
In 2004 the then Libyan prime minister told the BBC that Tripoli had only admitted responsibility for Lockerbie to “buy peace” and an end to sanctions.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi made a similar remark four years later, telling the BBC that in its formal admission of responsibility the regime had “played with words
“Yes, we wrote a letter to the Security Council saying we are responsible for the acts of our employees, or people,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that we did it in fact. I admit that we played with words – we had to. What can you do? Without writing that letter we would not be able to get rid of sanctions.”
One theory about the bombing that still resonates was the focus of early U.S. and British investigations: that a Syrian-based terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, carried out the attack on Iran’s behalf.
Just months earlier, an American warship, the U.S.S. Vincennes, had accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, an incident posited as Tehran’s direct motive for the Pan Am bombing.
In 1997, a senior Iranian dissident told German law enforcement officials that Iran had ordered the bombing to avenge the Vincennes incident and had asked Libya and Palestinian terrorists to carry out the operation. Iran denied the claim.
Fresh claims of an Iranian link were also aired in a 2010 book by an Iranian secret agent who spied for the CIA, Reza Khalili. He recounted that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operative with links to the supreme leader’s office had shortly after the bombing told him details of the plot that only became publicly known months later.