Libyans hail al-Megrahi's return
Many Libyans believe man convicted of Lockerbie bombing was a 'political hostage'.
Last Modified: 24 Aug 2009 20:22 GMT

Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam (right), repeated claims Britain encouraged Scotland to release al-Megrahi (left) who was convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing [AFP]

Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, had promised that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, would be home before Ramadan.

But when al-Megrahi was greeted by a jubilant crowd in Tripoli on Friday and hailed as a hero by Libyans, the media in the US was visibly jarred.

"Terrorist celebrated in Libya," blasted the headline of one US network.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, expressed disappointment and Barack Obama, the US president, called al-Megrahi's release a mistake.

Some of the victims' families expressed outrage, as such a welcoming can only add insult to injury.
But in Libya, al-Megrahi has always been perceived as innocent.

"I know he didn't do it," said Ahmed Khalil, a police officer. "I'm sorry for the families, I really am... But Libya was generous in compensating them, even though we all know Libya didn't do it."

Many Libyans have doubted their country's involvement in the bombing, arguing instead that it was the work of another group working for the government of a regional power.

Compensation deal

In depth

 Profile: Abdel Basset al-Megrahi
 Bomber's homecoming slammed
 Release prompts anger and relief
  Video: Al-Megrahi's release sparks row
  Video: Al-Megrahi speaks out
  Video: Opinions divided over Lockerbie appeal
 Video: Lockerbie remembered
 Al-Megrahi statement in full

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew, most of them Americans.

Eleven people were killed in the town as debris from the stricken aircraft fell on houses.

The US and UK publicly accused Libya in 1990, yet al-Megrahi and an associate were not tried until ten years later, as part of a complex deal with the Libyan government.

Thereafter, the US and UK agreed to drop sanctions against Libya, when Gaddafi agreed to pay $2.7bn in compensation to the victims' families and to surrender two men identified as suspects by US and UK intelligence.

But despite his conviction by a panel of Scottish judges at Camp Zeist, a special court set up in the Netherlands in 2001, most Libyans rallied for his release, insisting he was innocent.

To this day, Libya has always denied responsibility for the bombing.

Salha Bashir, a university student studying political science, said she thought the entire trial was fake and that al-Megrahi was only a scapegoat.

Libyans, on the eve before they begin celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, anxiously awaited al-Megrahi's return not only because they believe he is innocent, but because al-Megrahi, as one official told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity "represents something the West took from us."

Libyans, who in recent years have welcomed western business, have always seen al-Megrahi's freedom as tantamount to better relations with the West. 

Gaddafi did not pretend to think otherwise.

In an interview with Libya's official news agency Jana, he thanked Britain for encouraging Scotland to release al-Meghrahi, saying it was: "In the interest of relations between the two countries... and will be positively reflected for sure in all areas of cooperation between the two countries."

Britain denied the claim, even as Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, affirmed them once more.

'Political hostage'

The December 22, 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 killed 270 people [AFP]
During a Friday night television interview on his TV channel Al-Moutaouasset, he said all British interests were linked to al-Megrahi's release and that the case was discussed with Tony Blair, the former prime minister, who in 2007 signed off on an agreements for gas exploration in Libya.

Hours after his release, Jana issued a statement from the government saying that al-Megrahi had been "a political hostage."

Tarek Khalifah, watched the scene on his small TV in his shop near Tripoli's fish market.

"I believe he's an innocent man whom God wanted to set free so that he may live out his last days with his family. By his coming home, we think justice is now really served."

Hajja Halouma, an old woman from the Old City in Tripoli, recalled the 1986 US bombing of Libya in which Gaddafi's adopted daughter and 30 people were killed.

Some saw the Lockerbie bombing as retaliation.

"Why don't Americans remember that," she said. "I am happy for his [al-Megrahi's] mother."

Now, as Gaddafi marks his 40th year in power, he can say he restored relations with the West without cowering to their demands.

However, not all in Libya are celebrating.

Samia, a housewife was quick to say al-Megrahi's family should be the only people celebrating, and that Libyans should worry about themselves and their "lowly life."

"His mother should be happy, not me," she said, before proceeding to complain about the high cost of pharmaceuticals, horrible traffic and "fasad", or corruption, in the country.

Al Jazeera
Topics in this article
Featured on Al Jazeera
An innovative rehabilitation programme offers Danish fighters in Syria an escape route and help without prosecution.
Street tension between radical Muslims and Holland's hard right rises, as Islamic State anxiety grows.
Take an immersive look at the challenges facing the war-torn country as US troops begin their withdrawal.
Ministers and MPs caught on camera sleeping through important speeches have sparked criticism that they are not working.
Referendum on Scottish independence is the first major election in the UK where 16 and 17-year olds get a vote.
Blogger critical of a lack of government transparency faces defamation lawsuit from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Farmers worry about their future as buyers shun local produce and rivers show an elevated presence of heavy metals.
War-torn neighbour is an uncertain haven for refugees fleeing Pakistan's Balochistan, where locals seek independence.
NSA whistleblower Snowden and journalist Greenwald accuse Wellington of mass spying on New Zealanders.
join our mailing list