The only convicted bomber in the December 1988 Lockerbie bombing which snuffed out the lives of 243 passengers and 16 crew — and killed 11 people on the ground — has been released in Scotland on compassionate grounds since he is terminally ill.
The bombing was a massive tragedy and a harbinger of the new Age of the Terrorist that was to come — and there are already signs that the release will be highly controversial. CNN:
The only man convicted over the Lockerbie bombing is to be released and allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill, Scotland’s justice minister said Thursday.
Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi 57 was serving a life sentence for bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, resulting in the deaths of 270 people.
The White House, which has urged Britain to keep al Megrahi behind bars, said it “deeply regrets” the decision.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill told a news conference in Edinburgh the prisoner was “going home to die” and would be released within an hour of the announcement shortly after 1200 GMT (8 a.m. ET).
“Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion available,” MacAskill said. “Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown.”
[Read TMV writer Pat Edaburn’s initial reaction to the news HERE.]
According to CNN, the famliy members are divided over whether he should be released or not. Some have backed his release; others are enraged over it.
Martin Frost’s website puts the horror of the bombing into focus:
Pan Am Flight 103 was Pan American World Airways’ third daily scheduled transatlantic flight from London’s Heathrow International Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. On December 21, 1988, the aircraft flying this route, a Boeing 747-100 registered N739PA and named “Clipper Maid of the Seas”, was blown up as it flew over Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, when 12 to 16 oz (340 to 450 g) of plastic explosive was detonated in its forward cargo hold, triggering a sequence of events that led to the rapid destruction of the aircraft. Winds of 100 knots (190 km/h) scattered passengers and debris along a 130 km (81 mile) corridor over an area of 845 square miles (2189 km²). Two hundred and seventy people from 21 countries died, including 11 people on the ground.
Known as the Lockerbie bombing and the Lockerbie air disaster in the UK, it became the subject of Britain’s largest criminal inquiry, led by its smallest police force. It was widely regarded as an assault on a symbol of the United States, and with 189 of the victims being Americans, it stood as the deadliest attack on American civilians until September 11, 2001.
A BBC timeline shows that between the event itself, the investigation, conviction, appeals and release, this case went on for 21 years — ending in Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi to walk free.
Two key parts of the timeline:
13 Nov. 1991: US and British investigators indict Libyans Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act. The men were accused of being Libyan intelligence agents.
….31 January 2001: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is found guilty of murder after the historic trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands.
The judges recommend a minimum of 20 years “in view of the horrendous nature of this crime”.
Megrahi’s co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, is found not guilty and told he is free to return home.
Retuers has a story that should be read in full, but here’s a small part of it:
“Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power,” Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill told a news conference. “It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”
A Libyan government spokesman said Megrahi was being flown home by a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“Megrahi has been released and is on his way home,” the spokesman said.
Megrahi, 57, is the only person to be convicted over the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in mid-air above the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He lost an appeal against his conviction in 2002.
However, a Scottish review of his case ruled in 2007 that the case may have been a miscarriage of justice.
The United States and the relatives of many of the 189 American victims had opposed Megrahi’s early release and said he should serve his full life sentence in prison.
The families of many of the Britons killed in the bombing thought he should be allowed to go home to die.
Megrahi is likely to be warmly welcomed by Gaddafi, who has moved closer to the Western mainstream since dropping his nuclear weapons programme in 2003.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued this official statement:
The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi. Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Scotland on December 21, 1988. As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland. On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones. We recognize the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever.
Reuters issues this summary of reactions now pouring in — including this from the families:
FRANK DUGGAN, PRESIDENT OF VICTIMS OF PAN AM 103, A GROUP THAT REPRESENTS THE FAMILIES OF THE AMERICAN VICTIMS
“I heard from the White House yesterday that President Obama, via a senior White House official, had made a last minute attempt to show their dismay to the Scottish government at this decision.
“My understanding is that the man (Megrahi) really is within three months of dying, which is one of the issues we wanted cleared up. At the same time, we have always maintained that he should remain in prison in Scotland and die there if it comes to that.
“I understand though that the Libyan government has given assurances that there will be no celebratory reactions on the part of the Libyans when Megrahi gets back. We were all afraid that this guy would go back to a hero’s welcome. But there’s going to be no dancing in the end-zone, as the expression goes.”
(UPDATE) But other families are outraged and stunned by the release. Fox News offers these quotes in a story that should be read in full.
“I cannot imagine having compassion for a mass murderer and terrorist who killed 270 people,” said Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the blast. “My daughter is dead. She is the one who deserves compassion.”
“The Scots have folded very cowardly,” she said. “The only sliver of justice we had was al-Megrahi — and now we don’t even have that.”
…..Among the victims were 35 students from Syracuse University, four from Colgate University and four from Brown University — all going home after a semester abroad in London. The average age of the passengers was 27.
…”It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Stan Maslowski of Haddonfield, N.J., said of Thursday’s release of Al-Megrahi.
Maslowski’s 30-year-old daughter, Diane, died in the bombing. “We’ve lived through this for 21 years. We’ve never had justice.”
Maslowski’s daughter, who was returning home for Christmas, was an assistant vice president and trader in the international fixed income department for Drexel Burnham Lambert, based in London. Maslowski and his wife, Norma, recounted speaking with their daughter hours before her flight, recalling that she told them about a job interview she had lined up as a financial commentator for NBC News.
“She was a loving daughter, with so much ahead of her,” he said.
Here’s an ITN video that gives details about the release:
The BBC also has a Q&A about what this means. Here are a few of the points:
Why is there so much anger in the US?
Many US relatives of those who died are convinced of Megrahi’s guilt. They believe he showed no mercy to the loved ones they have lost and do not believe he deserves any compassion.
Megrahi has always protested his innocence, and convinced some British relatives he is the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
How has the Scottish Government handled the decision?
This is a no-win decision for the Scottish Government. Any one of the options open to it would have drawn fierce criticism.
If there had been a last-minute change of heart, the devolved administration would have been ridiculed for crumbling under pressure from the United States.
Is the strength of evidence against him a factor in his release?
No. The evidence would have been tested in court again, had Megrahi not dropped his second appeal against conviction and sentence.
Go the link and read it in its entirety.
The idea that the one man convicted in the bombing would be released did indeed hit a raw nerve in the United States, where seven U.S. Senators urged him to be kept locked up:
We know that the Scottish government shares our commitment — and the world’s — to support justice and oppose acts of terrorism,” the senators wrote. “That is why we urge you to ensure that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi serves the remainder of his sentence in prison in Scotland.
But part of the controversy story are doubts some have about who was “really” behind the bombing and allegations that all the facts aren’t known.David Bryce Jones has a fascinating piece on his The National Review blog which puts it into perspective. Here is a tiny taste of it:
Genuine doubt has always existed about the perpetrators. Some, especially in the United States, are convinced that this was indeed a Libyan operation. Others, equally firm in their opinion, hold that Iran and Syria together paid the Palestinian terrorist group led by Ahmed Jibril to blow up the jet — the spokesman for this line of thinking is Dr. Jim Swire, an Englishman whose daughter was killed that day. Dr. Swire has devoted time and energy to investigating this act of terrorism, and he believes that the imprisonment of al-Megrahi is a miscarriage of justice. Jibril was a particularly foul criminal who murdered a lot of people including many of his own men, and was himself finally murdered, seemingly at the orders of Saddam Hussein. That’s how they do things over there. The corpses pile up but the trail to establish culpability somehow always peters out, and you never know exactly whom to blame.
Al-Megrahi lost a first appeal for another hearing. In 2007 his lawyers put in a second appeal on the basis that more evidence was available and it would show the miscarriage of justice. The appeal was granted. The families of the victims were encouraged to believe that they might get closer to the truth. And now, suddenly, Al-Megrahi is said to be dying from prostate cancer, and therefore it would be only humanitarian to release him to Libya. Simultaneously, his lawyers happen to have withdrawn his second appeal.
The connection between these two events is murky. Pretty well everyone, however, concludes that the British authorities were well aware that Al-Megrahi would win his appeal, and they would be exposed as having framed him. So they offered to set him free in exchange for the dropping of the appeal….
….And if Al-Megrahi is indeed freed in the next few days, as widely forecast, you can safely bet that quite soon he will be giving an interview in some expensive villa on the beautiful Libyan coast, happily informing the world that his cancer has been miraculously cured.
On the other hand, reports indicate that authorities have confirmed he has cancer — but there will be some who will likely question that as well until the very day Al-Megrahi passes away. So to some the question will now be: When was the miscarriage of justice? The release — or the conviction? And will the definitive, undisputed answer that clears away any doubts or conspiracy theories ever be known?
UPDATE: The Daily Telegraph’s Foreign Editor blasts the release and discounts those who raise questions about whether the conviction:
I’m sorry, but I don’t care a jot whether Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi has terminal cancer. So long he remains the only person to have been convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity committed on British soil he should remain in prison for the rest of his life, whether it is this year or in twenty years’ time.
It’s all very well for Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, to talk about releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds. But where was the compassion he showed the victims of the terrorist attack on flight Pan Am 103 in December 1988 when he planted the bomb that killed 270 people?
And we have no reason to believe it was anyone other than Megrahi who placed the fatal device because he dropped his appeal against conviction shortly before Mr McAskill made his shameful decision.
Although there has been considerable debate among the families of the Lockerbie victims about who else might have been involved – Syria and Iran have regularly been implicated – the evidence that convicted Megrahi was overwhelming. Moreover, as a former Libyan intelligence officer, Megrahi knows a great deal more about who else was responsible for the bombing than he has let on.
Read it in its entirety.
UPDATE: How many days did he get in prison for each person who died? Read Ed Morrissey HERE.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.