CAIRO — Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, has died in Libya, almost three years after his release from prison. He was 60.
His death in Tripoli was announced Sunday by his son, the Associated Press reported. Al-Megrahi had prostate cancer.
The illness prompted Scottish authorities to free him on Aug. 20, 2009, on the grounds he had only a few months to live. Still alive two years later, he witnessed the armed uprising against the country’s leader and his supporter, Muammar Qadhafi, who fled from rebel troops who entered Tripoli in August.
A former Libyan intelligence officer, al-Megrahi always maintained his innocence. “The West exaggerated my name,” he had told Reuters in an interview. “Please leave me alone. I only have a few more days, weeks or months.”
Al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome in Libya upon his return from Scotland after serving eight years of a 27-year sentence. Libyan state-run television showed footage of Qadhafi embracing him. Local media described al-Megrahi as a “political hostage” and listed his release among Qadhafi’s achievements during his rule since 1969.
The United States and Britain strongly criticized Libya for that reception, but the Libyan ambassador in Washington, Ali Suleiman Aujali, defended the welcome. Rather than a terrorist cheered for killing civilians, “Libyans saw a dying man — believed to be innocent by his countrymen and many others worldwide — being embraced by his family,” Aujali wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew at about 31,000 feet killed 270 people — all 259 aboard, plus 11 on the ground. Investigators said the explosive had been hidden in a cassette recorder packed with clothes in a suitcase in the cargo hold.
Indicted in the U.S. and Scotland, al-Megrahi and a second defendant were tried in the Netherlands, a neutral site, under a compromise with Qadhafi. Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001. His co-defendant was found not guilty.
The case symbolized an era when Qadhafi sought to impose his self-styled revolution through militancy, regional fighters and efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was among the reasons that led to U.S. and United Nations sanctions on Libya for sponsoring terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s.
“That era is over, but Libya still doesn’t know how to deal with the outside world,” Jihad el-Khazen, a London-based Arab political commentator, said days after al-Megrahi’s 2009 release. Calling al-Megrahi’s festive reception in Tripoli “provocative,” el-Khazen said, “this was a man convicted for killing 270 people, 99 percent of them civilians. Their families still exist.”
Al-Megrahi was born on April 1, 1952, in Tripoli, according to documents released by the Scottish government. He was educated in the U.S. and the U.K., Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported.
His work as director of Libya’s Center for Strategic Studies gave him the cover to spy on behalf of Libyan intelligence services, according to a profile in Britain’s Sunday Express. He also was chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, and prosecutors said that job gave him the opening to carry out the bombing, the Sunday Express said.
Al-Megrahi and his wife had five children.
Libya’s turnaround in relations with the West came between 2002 and 2005, when Qadhafi abandoned a nuclear-arms development effort, pledged to destroy a chemical-weapons stockpile and renounced terrorism.
In 2003, he offered $2.7 billion to compensate families of those killed in the Pan Am bombing. The actions led to an easing of sanctions, improved ties with the U.S. and European nations, and Western investments to expand Libyan oil production.
Al-Megrahi’s release from prison stirred protests in Scotland and in London, where then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied reports that his government had supported releasing him to improve relations with oil-rich Libya.
Scottish Justice Minister Kenneth MacAskill said then that the government in Edinburgh followed “due process” according to local law in releasing al-Megrahi because medical evidence showed the Libyan had less than three months to live. The decision was attacked in the U.S. and by British opposition parties.
“It was a difficult, controversial decision, but somebody had to take it and we took it,” Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said in an Oct. 1, 2009, interview in Glasgow. “We’re entirely comfortable with what we did.”
With assistance from Robert Hutton in London and Mahmoud Kassem in Cairo.