Primer: The case of the Lockerbie terrorist bomber
By By Michael Muskal
Aug 21, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The release from prison Thursday of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, described as terminally ill with prostate cancer, was the latest development in the case of the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was seared into American and British consciousness as an early example of state terrorism. Here is a primer on the case.
What happened over Lockerbie, Scotland?
Pan Am Flight 103, carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew members, was heading to New York City from London when a device exploded in its hold, and the craft rapidly disintegrated. All aboard died, along with 11 people in Lockerbie. The dead were from 21 countries, but 189 were from the U.S., including a group of students from Syracuse University in upstate New York. It was Britain's deadliest terrorist attack.
Who was responsible for the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103?
Suspicion immediately focused on Libya, seen by the West as a leading state sponsor of terrorism. Libya was ostracized and placed under international sanctions until its leader, Moammar Kadafi, succeeded in negotiating a rapprochement after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. About $2.7 billion in compensation was paid to the families of those killed.
So if it is clear that Libya was responsible, who is Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi?
The FBI and authorities in Scotland investigated the bombing for three years and in 1991 returned indictments for murder against two men, both affiliated with a Libyan airline. Megrahi was an intelligence officer and head of security; also charged was Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, the airline's station manager in Malta. Libya fought extradition until April 1999, when the men were turned over to U.N. officials and, later, Scottish authorities in the Netherlands.
On Jan. 31, 2001, Megrahi was convicted of murder by a panel of three Scottish judges, and Fhimah was acquitted. Megrahi was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Is Megrahi guilty?
He always maintained that he was innocent. In a statement issued Thursday by his lawyers, Megrahi again said he was wrongly convicted.
Are there any others who agree with Megrahi?
Megrahi's appeal of the murder conviction was denied in 2002, but the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007 referred the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh after it found he "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Those findings have led a number of people in Britain to doubt his guilt.
Did the legal history have any bearing on Thursday's release?
Not according to Scotland's justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who said Megrahi was being released on "compassionate grounds" because he was terminally ill with cancer and should be "allowed to return to Libya to die."
Is this type of release unusual?
Compassionate release is an established feature of the Scottish judicial system in cases where prisoners are near death. According to officials, 23 requests for release on compassionate grounds were approved in Scotland during the last decade.