In 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The explosion and resulting crash killed 270 people, 189 of them Americans.
Thirteen years later, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan, was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, which he began serving in Scotland. Last year, suffering from what was thought to be terminal cancer at the age of 57, he was allowed to return home to Libya on compassionate grounds. It was thought he had only a few months to live. When he landed in Tripoli he was greeted as a hero. He subsequently made a recovery from his cancer and is now expected to live for years.
Many were outraged. And that anger increased in recent weeks with the reemergence of a story that the oil company BP had lobbied for Megrahi's release to help its business interests in Libya. BP signed a deal to explore for gas in the country in 2007, according to the Times of London, but had been stymied by bureaucratic delays. "Now that al-Megrahi is released," an unnamed Libyan source told the Times last year, "BP expects to get the go-ahead."
Britain's then–justice minister, Jack Straw, admitted that BP's needs were a consideration in the decision to return Megrahi, according to The New York Times. But BP has issued a convoluted denial—it admits it was lobbying for a prisoner-transfer deal between Libya and the U.K., but denies that Megrahi was specifically mentioned. Critics, report The New York Times, "have said that such a distinction was largely illusory."
The Lockerbie issue was on the agenda between Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron last week—the latter condemned the release of Megrahi, which happened under a previous government. It has been taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. BP CEO Tony Hayward has been invited to testify when the panel convenes on July 29. The Scottish government, meanwhile, has been bullish in denying any impropriety involving BP. First Minister Alex Salmond told the BBC, "We had no contact with BP, either written or verbal, or any lobbying of that kind as far as the process of compassionate release was concerned."
Now, to further complicate matters, one of the U.N. observers at Megrahi's 2001 trial has raised concerns about the Libyan's guilt in the first instance. Hans Koechler had said at the time that, in his opinion, "there seemed to be considerable political influence on the judges and the verdict." He has reiterated that view to the BBC, adding that the truth may never be uncovered. Others are beginning to cite flaws in the prosecution case too.
As for Megrahi himself, he is believed to be keeping a low profile in Tripoli. The Scottish government has refused to release details of his medical condition—on which it is kept updated. But a doctor who had assessed him, Karol Sikora, told the Daily Telegraph, “There was always a chance he could live for 10 years, 20 years ... But it's very unusual."