Cairo/Edinburgh: Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, has died in Libya, almost three years after his release from prison. He was 60.
Al-Megrahi’s sister, Amna, said her brother, who had prostate cancer, died at about 1pm local time on Sunday at home in Tripoli. He will be buried on Monday.
File Photo of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. By Reuters
The illness prompted Scottish authorities to free him on 20 August 2009 on the grounds he had only a few months to live. Still alive two years later, he witnessed the armed uprising against the country’s leader and his supporter, Muammar Gadhafi.
A former Libyan intelligence officer, al-Megrahi always maintained his innocence. “The West exaggerated my name,” he had told Reuters in an interview. “Please leave me alone. I only have a few more days, weeks or months.”
Al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome in Libya upon his return from Scotland after serving eight years of a 27-year sentence. Libyan state-run television showed footage of Gadhafi embracing him. Local media described al-Megrahi as a political hostage and listed his release among Gadhafi’s achievements during his rule since 1969.
The US and the UK 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.
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew at about 31,000 feet killed 270 people—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.
Indicted in the US and Scotland, al-Megrahi and a second defendant were tried in the Netherlands, a neutral site, under a compromise with Gadhafi. Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001. His co-defendant was found not guilty. The case symbolized an era when Gadhafi 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 US and United Nations sanctions on Libya for sponsoring terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s.
“That era is over, but Libya still doesn’t know how to deal with the outside world,” Jihad el-Khazen, a London-based Arab political commentator, said in a telephone interview days after al-Megrahi’s 2009 release. Calling al-Megrahi’s festive reception in Tripoli provocative, el-Khazen said, “This was a man convicted for killing 270 people, 99% of them civilians. Their families still exist.”
Al-Megrahi was born on 1 April 1952 in Tripoli, according to documents released by the Scottish government. He was educated in the US and the UK, the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.
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 UK’s Sunday Express. He also was 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.
Robert Hutton in London, Mahmoud Kassem in Cairo and Salah Slimani in Tripoli contributed to this story.