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08.25.11

The Lockerbie Convict’s New War

William Underhills asks: How will the Lockerbie bombing convict survive the Libyan revolution?

There’s fresh trouble for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Amid a clamor of criticism, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was released from a Scottish jail two years ago, allowed home on compassionate grounds. After a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, he had been given just three months to live. Now the collapse of the Gaddafi regime has brought calls for Megrahi’s extradition to the United States or his return to prison in Libya.

For a vocal lobby in Washington, his freedom—and continuing survival—represent an affront that can at last be addressed. In the words of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: “Seeing him participate in good health at a pro-Gaddafi rally recently was another slap in the face not just for the families of the Lockerbie victims but for all Americans and for all nations of the world who are committed to bringing terrorists to justice.”

A tad overstated? Such rhetoric certainly won’t find universal support in Britain. Megrahi is far from friendless back in Scotland, where Pan Am flight 103 crashed in 1988 killing 270 passengers and residents of the small town of Lockerbie. Campaigners convinced of his innocence are pressing the Scottish parliament for an inquiry leading to a possible appeal that would clear Megrahi’s name.

And the roll-call of big-name supporters for the Justice for Megrahi group can’t be easily ignored. On the list: Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien; Jim Swire, the parent of a Lockerbie victim, and Professor Robert Black, the lawyer who devised the special court which tried Megrahi in the Netherlands in 2001.

One more backer, the leading lawyer Ian Hamilton, has blogged: “I don’t think there’s a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr. Megrahi was justly convicted."

The group insists there’s no case for extradition on legal grounds. Says Robert Forrester, secretary of the campaign: “Mr. Megrahi is a Scots prisoner released under license and still falls under Scots jurisdiction therefore and neither Washington nor Westminster has any jurisdiction under Scots law.” But he concedes that politics may determine his fate. “The man should be left alone to continue with his medical treatment but he has become such a pawn that I can’t believe that is going to happen.”

The roll-call of big-name supporters for the Justice for Megrahi group can’t be easily ignored.

Campaigners have long fought to highlight what they see as serious flaws in the case against Megrahi, the only person ever convicted over the bombing. They point in particular to the contradictory testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who claims to have sold Megrahi the clothes packed in the suitcase that carried the bomb. Gauci reportedly received a $2 million reward from the U.S. for giving evidence. Megrahi abandoned an appeal against his conviction so as to ease his release in 2009.

One frustration, says Forrester, is that the facts of the case are so little known to the public. “The problem is that so many people come to this from a basis of ignorance. We end up having arguments with people in the pro-trial camp who haven’t read the transcript or even the judgment.” 

His own involvement dates from a chance encounter with a Libyan neighbor in Glasgow who needed help to start his car. Through his new acquaintance, Forrester, a retired language teacher who has worked in the Middle East, was asked to proofread a letter on behalf of a Libyan student group in the city to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond calling for the Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds.

If the evidence was so flawed, why was Megrahi convicted? Forrester won’t endorse conspiracy theories or suggestions of political interference, but he’s ready to speculate on unconscious motives. “This was the most high-profile case ever to come before a Scots court. Perhaps at the back of the mind of the judges was ‘if we can’t get any conviction out of this incredibly high profile trial of this it will be hugely embarrassing.’ If ever the case returns to court, acquittal could prove far more embarrassing.