The first time I heard Abdel Bassett Al Megrahi’s name, I was reading it out loud on the news. A piece of paper had been hurriedly handed to me while I was reading the main evening bulletin on Scottish Television in November 1991.
The breaking news was that two men had been indicted by the Scottish legal authorities, accused of the biggest mass murder in British history.
The fact two Libyans had been implicated was a surprise, not just to me, but to many who had followed developments after Pan Am 103 was blown out of the skies above the Scottish border town of Lockerbie in December 1988.
All the early evidence suggested this was an attack carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC).
The belief, which was reported widely at the time and backed up by the usual “security sources”, was that the group accepted a large amount of money from Iran to carry out an attack on a US airline in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the USS Vincences earlier that year.
There was a long drawn out process to get Megrahi in front of a Scottish court. Even Nelson Mandela was involved.
Eventually he stood trial in front of a panel of three judges in a Scottish court built in the Netherlands.
His co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah was cleared. Despite the prosecution’s key witness failing to recognise Megrahi, he was found guilty of 270 counts of murder and jailed for life with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 27 years.
“Miscarriage of justice”
The UN observer at the trial challenged the verdict which led to the conviction. Professor Robert Black, an expert in Scots law, and the man who devised the unusual non-jury trial, called Megrahi’s murder conviction “the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for 100 years”.
After an appeal against conviction failed, I stood outside Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow on a bitterly cold morning in March 2002 as Megrahi was due to start his sentence.
Home to many of Scotland’s most dangerous criminals, the Libyan was given a special suite in the top security jail.
With extra space, his own bathroom and shower (something the other cells did not have), a personal TV with access to Arab TV channels, it was quickly named by other inmates ‘The Gaddafi café’.
There was anger that a mass killer was to be afforded such luxury behind bars. ‘A disgrace to the dead’ said one newspaper.
Eventually Megrahi was moved to a more relaxed regime at Greenock Prison. It was here, when he fell ill, he was diagnosed with the cancer which would free him before it killed him.
Acting on medical advice, the Scottish authorities, decided to send Megrahi back to Libya to die.
He was told he had just three months to live. Someone called me late at night at my home to tell me the decision had been made.
This, I was told, was ‘a compassionate release’ but it was attacked by the American government and by some of the families of the Lockerbie victims. President Barack Obama called it a mistake.
One year after his release, I stood in front of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and tried to explain to Al Jazeera’s global audience why Megrahi was still alive, and the anger that seemed to provoke from some.
By this time, there was a growing number who believed Megrahi was not responsible for the Lockerbie Bombing.
In her autobigraphy, former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said after she supported the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, “Libya never again mounted a serious attack on the West”.
When asked later by the father of one of those who died in the bombing if she stuck by that, she said curtly ” I have nothing more to add”.
Megrahi dropped his appeal to clear the way for his release. His legal team, a number of high profile supporters, and some relatives of those who died at Lockerbie were convinced his innocence would be established.
The Scottish authorities insisted the legal system had worked, justice had not failed and they had jailed the right man.
Megrahi until his death insisted he was not responsible for Lockerbie and the 270 murders that were committed.
David Ben-Ayreah, a spokesman for the victims of Lockerbie families attended the trial. He listened to the evidence and left convinced Megrahi was not the bomber.
Told of his death, he replied: “Megrahi is the 271st victim of Lockerbie.”
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