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Obituary: Libyan Convicted For Role In 1988 Lockerbie Bombing Dies

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi (center) was welcomed as a hero on his return to Tripoli after release by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds in August 2009.
Officials in Libya say the only man convicted of carrying out the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which 270 people were killed in one of the deadliest acts of terrorism in modern history, has died.

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was flown back from prison in Scotland to his native Libya in 2009 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and granted compassionate release.

He had been convicted of planting a bomb on the Pan Am airliner that exploded as it flew from London to New York on December 21, 1988.

All 259 people on board were killed along with 11 others who died amid the wreckage on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

Megrahi always maintained his innocence -- a claim he reiterated in an October 2011 interview with Reuters Television at his Tripoli home amid the sounds of medical monitors.

"The facts will become clear one day and hopefully in the near future," Megrahi said. "In a few months from now, you will see new facts that will be announced."

Megrahi was born in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on April 1, 1952.

He studied in the United States and spent some time in Britain during the 1970s, where he studied in Cardiff, Wales, giving him a strong command of English.

He married in the 1980s, eventually fathering five children.
A policeman walking next to the wreckage of the Pan Am 747 Boeing cockpit a day after the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988.
A policeman walking next to the wreckage of the Pan Am 747 Boeing cockpit a day after the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988.

In the 1990s, Megrahi and the other accused man, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were indicted in the United States and Scotland for the Lockerbie bombing, and added to the FBI's top 10 "most wanted fugitives" list.

Negotiations with then Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the imposition of UN economic sanctions against Tripoli brought the accused to Camp Zeist in 1999, a special court set up in the Netherlands.

At the end of an eight-month trial in 2001, Scottish judges found Megrahi guilty and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of 27 years, but acquitted Fhimah.

A subsequent appeal by Megrahi was rejected, and he was imprisoned in Scotland.

Intelligence Background

Prosecutors successfully had argued that Megrahi’s position as chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) allowed him to carry out the bombing.

A purported Libyan intelligence officer, Megrahi was identified by a Maltese shopkeeper as the man who bought clothes that were found in the suitcase carrying the bomb planted on the Pan Am aircraft.

Investigators said the bomb-rigged suitcase checked into a flight to Frankfurt from Malta, where LAA had an office, and then transferred to a flight to London, where it was put aboard Pan Am Flight 103.

Despite the guilty verdict, many believed that those really responsible for the Lockerbie disaster had escaped justice.

Megrahi was given a new chance to clear his name in 2007 when the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission granted him a second appeal, raising serious questions about the evidence used to convict him, including the reliability of the evidence given by the Maltese shopkeeper.

It subsequently emerged he was suffering from terminal cancer, and Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill granted him release on compassionate grounds in 2009, saying that medical evidence showed he would die within three months.

"Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power," MacAskill said at the time. "It is one that no court in any jurisdiction and any land could revoke or over-rule. It is terminal, final, and irrevocable. He is going to die."

Hero's Welcome Under Qaddafi

After serving eight years in Scottish jails, Megrahi was flown home, where he was welcomed as a hero.

The news of his release provoked protest from relatives of the Lockerbie victims.

U.S. President Barack Obama called the decision "a mistake" and, as the Libyan uprising against Qaddafi’s regime unfolded, American politicians pressed for his extradition -- which the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) ruled out.

In October 2011, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that Megrahi "never should have been let out of jail."

"Our own Justice Department investigation of him is ongoing," Nuland said. "We are continuing to talk to the TNC. We also had some members of the Senate in Tripoli last week who raised his case. So we believe that the right place for al-Megrahi is behind bars, and we'll continue to make that case to the Libyans."
Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi at Tripoli Central Hospital in September 2009
Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi at Tripoli Central Hospital in September 2009

Three months earlier, in July 2011, video broadcast on Libyan state television of a rally in support of Qaddafi’s government appeared to show Megrahi seated in a wheelchair and wearing a surgical mask.

In his interview with Reuters Television, he said anti-Qaddafi armed men had invaded his home and mistreated him. He also said he was being denied medical treatment that he said was stipulated in the deal that saw him returned from Scotland to Libya.

Scotland has asked Libya's new authorities to help track down those responsible for the 1988 bombing -- a request to which the NTC agreed.

But Megrahi's death ends the possibility of eliciting his full account of Tripoli's role in the Lockerbie bombing, while removing a potentially serious point of tension between Libya's new leaders and their Western backers.

Megrahi was scheduled to be buried on May 21.