With both Moammar Gadhafi and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi now dead, it is unlikely a clearer picture will emerge of the details and planning of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
CAIRO — Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted in the 1988 bombing of an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, died at home in Tripoli on Sunday nearly three years after passions around the case were reawakened when he was freed on compassionate grounds because he was reported to have advanced prostate cancer.
Al-Megrahi, 60, a former intelligence officer, became an icon of state-sponsored terrorism under the rule of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Al-Megrahi repeatedly denied he had a role in the downing of Pan Am 103, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans, and led to Libya’s further isolation as a rogue state.
Diminished and purportedly close to death, al-Megrahi was released from custody in Scotland in 2009 on humanitarian grounds. The gesture was immediately scorned by the families of victims and condemned by Western leaders, including President Obama. The release was widely seen as a backroom deal for Gadhafi to provide oil and gas contracts to benefit Great Britain. British and Scottish officials denied the accusation.
Al-Megrahi returned to Tripoli to a hero’s welcome, allowing Gadhafi, a master of intrigue and theatrics, to use the homecoming as a propaganda ploy.
With both Gadhafi and al-Megrahi now dead, it is unlikely that a clearer picture will emerge of the details and planning of an attack that stunned the world and left debris scattered across Scotland.
“I am an innocent man,” al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the case, said in his last interview, published in several British newspapers in December. “I am about to die and I ask now to be left in peace with my family.”
A former Libyan intelligence officer who worked undercover at Libya’s national airline, al-Megrahi was found guilty in 2001 of orchestrating the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, with a 27-year minimum. Eight years later, when he was freed in 2009 under a Scottish law providing for compassionate release of prisoners with terminal illnesses, cheering crowds greeted his return to Libya, escorted by Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, in a grim propaganda coup.
Critics charged that al-Megrahi’s release had been a part of Libyan oil and gas deals with Britain. A British Cabinet official admitted that he and the prime minister had discussed al-Megrahi with Gadhafi’s son at a European economic conference but denied there had been any deal for his release.
After treatment at Tripoli’s most advanced cancer center, al-Megrahi lived with his family at a villa in Tripoli at the government’s expense. As civil war engulfed Libya in 2011, Western calls for his return to prison increased, especially after Gadhafi was overthrown and later killed by revolutionary forces.
Tripoli’s new leaders refused to return him but amid international pressures signaled a willingness to get to the bottom of the Lockerbie case, still unresolved after nearly a quarter of a century of struggle among nations and investigations that spanned the globe, touching on Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians and Libyans.
The enigmatic al-Megrahi had been the central figure of the case for decades, reviled as a terrorist, but defended by many Libyans and even some world leaders as a victim of injustice whose trial, 12 years after the bombing, had been riddled with political overtones, memory gaps and flawed evidence.
His first cousin was Sa’id Rashid, a senior officer of Jamahiriya el-Mukhabarat, the Libyan intelligence service, and a member of Gadhafi’s inner circle. Al-Megrahi was also a senior intelligence officer and director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Tripoli.
U.S. intelligence officials said he became chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines as a cover for his secret work as a military procurer, enabling him to travel widely, often using aliases and false passports. As tensions between the United States and Libya mounted in the 1980s, prosecutors said, al-Megrahi was enlisted for an act of terrorism.
It was to be the worst in British history and a devastating strike against America. On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am 103, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew members, took off from Heathrow Airport in Britain, bound for New York. Little more than a half-hour later, cruising at 31,000 feet over southern Scotland, the plane exploded. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground were killed.
The terrorists apparently intended the aircraft to fall into the sea. But because it took off late, victims and debris fell on land. Recovered evidence showed that the plane had been blown up by Semtex plastic and a Swiss timing device similar to the kind sold to the Libyan military. The bomb had been hidden in a Toshiba cassette player and placed in a brown Samsonite suitcase, with clothing that was traced to a merchant in Malta.
While they had no direct proof, investigators believed the suitcase with the bomb had been fitted with routing tags for baggage handlers, put on a plane at Malta and flown to Frankfurt, where it was loaded onto a Boeing 727 feeder flight that connected to Pan Am 103 at London, then transferred to the doomed jetliner.
After a three-year investigation, al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the Libyan airline station manager in Malta, were indicted for mass murder in 1991. Libya refused to extradite them, and the United Nations imposed eight years of sanctions that cost Libya $30 billion.
Al-Megrahi lived under armed guard and worked as a teacher. Negotiations led by former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa produced a compromise in 1999 — the suspects’ surrender, and a trial by Scottish judges in the Netherlands.
The trial lasted 85 days. No witness connected the suspects directly to the bomb.
But one, Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who sold the clothing forensic experts had linked to the bomb, identified al-Megrahi as the buyer, although he seemed doubtful and had picked others in photo displays.
The bomb’s timer was traced to a Zurich manufacturer, Mebo, whose owner, Edwin Bollier, testified that such devices had been sold to Libya. A fragment from the crash site was identified by a Mebo employee, Ulrich Lumpert.
Neither defendant testified. But a turncoat Libyan agent testified that plastic explosives had been stored in Fhimah’s desk in Malta, that al-Megrahi had brought a brown suitcase and that both men were at the Malta airport on the day the bomb was sent on its way.
On Jan. 31, 2001, the three-judge court found al-Megrahi guilty but acquitted Fhimah. The court called the case circumstantial, the evidence incomplete and some witnesses unreliable, but concluded that “there is nothing in the evidence which leaves us with any reasonable doubt as to the guilt” of al-Megrahi. Much of the evidence, however, was later challenged as unreliable.
It emerged that Gauci had failed repeatedly to identify Megrahi before the trial and had selected him only after seeing his picture in a magazine and being shown the same picture in court. The date of the clothing sale was also in doubt.
Investigators said Bollier, whom even the court called “untruthful and unreliable,” had changed his story repeatedly after taking money from Libya, and might have gone to Tripoli just before the attack to fit a timer and bomb into the cassette recorder. The implication that he was a conspirator was never pursued.
In 2007, Lumpert admitted that he had lied at the trial, stolen a timer and given it to a Lockerbie investigator. Moreover, the fragment he identified was never tested for explosives residue, although it was the only evidence of possible Libyan involvement.
The court’s inference that the bomb had been transferred from the Frankfurt feeder flight also was cast into doubt when a Heathrow security guard revealed that Pan Am’s baggage area had been broken into 17 hours before the bombing, a circumstance never explored.
Hans Koechler, a U.N. observer, called the trial “a spectacular miscarriage of justice,” words echoed by Mandela. Many legal experts, authors and investigative journalists challenged the evidence, calling al-Megrahi a scapegoat for a regime long identified with terrorism.
While denying involvement, Libya paid $2.7 billion to the victims’ families in 2003 in a bid to end years of diplomatic isolation.
Al-Megrahi began serving his sentence at Barlinnie Prison near Glasgow, where toilets were buckets in the cells. He was moved in 2005 to the smaller, more humane Greenock Prison in Inverclyde.
His first appeal was rejected in 2002. He dropped a second one to clear his repatriation to Libya. Doctors diagnosed his advanced cancer in 2008. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill released him Aug. 20, 2009, and he flew home to a welcome that coincided with 40th anniversary celebrations of the Gadhafi revolution.
He outlived Gadhafii by seven months.
Source: The Seattle Times