Finding the Lockerbie Bomber Comatose Makes Things Difficult

For one thing, he's unlikely to tell the full story of the bombing

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The fall of Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya has reignited the controversy surrounding the 2009 release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from jail, especially in recent days as new details have emerged about the Libyan's health, whereabouts, and prospects for returning to prison. Scottish authorities released Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, two years ago on the grounds that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had only months to live. Megrahi received a hero's welcome when he returned to Tripoli (see photo above) and lived longer than expected, appearing at a pro-Qaddafi rally in Tripoli in a wheelchair in late July.

The rebel seizure of Tripoli once again shone the spotlight on Megrahi, as his Scottish parole officers scrambled to locate him and American and British politicians demanded that Libya's new rulers extradite Megrahi. Then, on Sunday, CNN's Nic Robertson tracked down Megrahi in rebel-held Tripoli, only to find him lying on a hospital bed with an oxygen mask, comatose and near death. Scottish officials, meanwhile, have defended their decision to release Megrahi and reiterated that he is dying of cancer, while rebel leaders have announced that they have no intention of extraditing the Lockerbie bomber.

What explains the latest developments? U.S. politicians are particularly sensitive about Megrahi's release because many of the 270 people killed in the Lockerbie bombing were American, and the outcry in the U.S. only grew when speculation surfaced that Scotland had bent to pressure from the oil company BP and released Megrahi to protect Britain's diplomatic and commercial relations with oil-rich Libya. Scotland has long denied these rumors and argued that it released Megrahi on "compassionate grounds" in accordance with its justice system and the best medical advice at the time.

Another puzzling question is why the Libyan rebels would rule out the possibility of extraditing Megrahi and risk alienating the very Western powers who've facilitated their victory over Qaddafi. On Sunday, rebel justice minister Mohammed al-Alagi argued that extraditing Megrahi would smack of Qaddafi-era betrayal. "Al-Megrahi has already been judged once and he will not be judged again," the minister told reporters. "We do not hand over Libyan citizens. Qaddafi does." But there may be other factors at work. CNN notes, for example, that the opposition may be "reluctant to be seen doing America's bidding." On CNN World News Update podcast, Nic Robertson adds that Megrahi hails from an "important and large tribe" in Libya--a tribe that Qaddafi once courted and that the opposition is now trying to win over to its side.

Beyond the renewed controversy, there's another reason news of Megrahi's deteriorating health is making headlines. Megrahi's death, The New York Times explains, "would end the possibility of eliciting his full account of the Libyan government's role in the bombing." Nic Robertson had hoped that with Qaddafi gone, Megrahi, who has long maintained his innocence, might finally speak out about who else was behind the Lockerbie attack. Now that's look increasingly unlikely. Here's Robertson's report on finding Megrahi:

And here's footage from The Telegraph of Megrahi in a wheelchair at the pro-Qaddafi rally last month. He first comes on screen about nine seconds into the clip:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.