01.05.10

The Terrorist Who Won't Die

Long after his controversial release from a Scottish prison, the Lockerbie bomber has outlived his prognosis—enraging the loved ones of his victims on Pan Am Flight 103.

Never mind the Underpants Bomber, who failed to blow up a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day and will now feel the full force of the American criminal justice system. The Lockerbie Bomber, who was successful, is alive and living quietly at home in Libya—nearly five months after his so-called “compassionate release” from a Scottish prison.

Fifty-seven-year-old terrorist Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi—handed a life sentence after being found guilty in the Dec. 21, 1988 murders of 259 passengers and crew on Pan Am Flight 103, plus another 11 people on the ground—was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer by unnamed Scottish doctors who erroneously predicted he’d be dead by now.

And the loved ones of those who perished in the crash are livid about it.

The municipal authorities of a Glasgow suburb, where Megrahi had been serving his time in a two-room cell with a television set and a prayer area, are responsible for monitoring his health in Libya, thousands of miles away.

“We are quite interested in how the Libyans, and indeed the Scots who released Megrahi, are going to spin the fact that he is still alive and kicking after he was supposed to have gone to his eternal judgment day,” said aviation security expert Frank Duggan, president of Victims of Pan Am 103 Inc., which represents the families of the 190 Americans killed in the Boeing 747’s explosion over Scotland. “We never believed he was as ill as they maintained, since they had been saying he had one foot in the grave for over a year.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has demanded that Megrahi be returned forthwith to prison in Scotland. And Rep. Eliot Engel, another New York Democrat, has taken an interest in the case as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It was ludicrous to release the Lockerbie Bomber, absolutely ludicrous,” Engel told me. “It’s even more outrageous now in light of what has happened with this Nigerian guy. There are many terrorists out there.”

Megrahi’s ostensibly grave medical condition was Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill’s public rationale for freeing him on Aug. 20 “to return to Libya to die.” But instead of the promised under-the-radar landing back in his home country, the convicted terrorist received a triumphant hero’s welcome on the tarmac in Tripoli, where he was ostentatiously hugged by Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. The bomber was flown from Scotland on a private jet by Gaddafi’s 37-year-old son, Saif al Islam al Gaddafi, who publicly boasted that he’d played a key role in the negotiating Megrahi’s release in exchange for business and trade considerations.

It was—for the Scots and Brits—a diplomatic and public relations catastrophe. And the political prospects of embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who must stand for reelection this year, surely were not improved by the spectacle.

“Mr. Al-Megrahi was examined by Scottish Prison Service doctors on 3 August,” Justice Minister MacAskill wrote in his now-notorious release order. “A report dated 10 August from the Director of Health and Care for the Scottish Prison Service indicates that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate…Although [Scottish law] does not specify what the grounds for compassionate release are, guidance from the Scottish Prison Service, who assess applications, suggests that it may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. There are no fixed time limits but life expectancy of less than three months may be considered an appropriate period.”

How sick, in fact, is Megrahi today? A recent report from Sky News quoted an unnamed Libyan hospital source suggesting his condition may be deteriorating. But the real answer, it seems, is a closely guarded secret.

My efforts to find out were unsuccessful but illuminating. As with the initial controversy surrounding Megrahi’s release—apparently a prerequisite for a lucrative oil exploration deal between British Petroleum and the Libyan government, with top British government officials and Scottish authorities dodging accountability and heaping blame on one another after the fact —there’s an impressive amount of bureaucratic buck-passing.

A British embassy official in Washington directed me to phone the Scottish government in Edinburgh. There, a Scottish official advised me to contact the East Renfrewshire Council. Unbelievably, the municipal authorities of this Glasgow suburb, where Megrahi had been serving his time in a two-room cell with a television set and a prayer area, are responsible for monitoring his health in Libya, thousands of miles away, and enforcing the conditions of his compassionate release—when not dealing with rubbish collection and pothole repair, of course.

“Whenever we need to be in touch with the client, we have all the contact we need to have,” explained George Barbour, senior media officer for the East Renfrewshire Council. By “client,” apparently, Barbour meant the bomber. “The license for his release says we should receive a monthly report from his doctors in Libya.”

Barbour said Megrahi has been cooperating with those and other terms of his release, including taking periodic phone calls from an official of the Community Health and Care Partnership of the East Renfrewshire Council, and participating in the occasional meeting by video link. The formal release license admonishes: “You shall be of good behaviour and shall keep the peace. You shall not travel outside Libya without the prior permission of your supervising officer. Failure to comply with these conditions may result in the revocation of your license and your recall to custody.”

It seems absurd to believe that the East Renfrewshire Council has the means to make good on such conditions, and the terrorist’s health status is decidedly not public information. “I can’t talk about that,” Barbour told me. “The privacy of the client’s medical details must be respected. It doesn’t matter who he is. It’s the same for him or any other client.”

Meanwhile, the loved ones of the dead continue to suffer with a sense of helplessness. “What more can be done?” asked Bethesda, Maryland, Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband Michael died on Pan Am 103. “I’ve said all I have to say over the last 21 years. The Scottish government has to live with the decision they made.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.