Britain to Libya: Don't celebrate Lockerbie bomber's release

Libya leader Muammar Qaddafi may throw a party for convicted Lockerbie murderer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, released one year ago today. Britain is warning against such action.

Amr Nabil/AP/File
In this Aug. 20, 2009 file photo, hundreds of Libyans welcome Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, top left, as he is accompanied by Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi upon his arrival at airport in Tripoli, Libya after Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds.

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Great Britain has warned Libya not to celebrate the anniversary of the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

Scotland released Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, one year ago on what it said it were "compassionate" grounds, with a court there arguing the man had three months to live. Both the release of the mass murderer by Scotland and the hero's welcome he was given by Libya when he returned home were deeply offensive to the families of his victims.

Now, reports suggest Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is planning another party for Megrahi. In response, the British government said Friday that such celebrations would be “tasteless, offensive, and deeply insensitive,'' reports the Daily Telegraph.

Great Britain is unlikely to back up its warning with action. But the UK's comments are a reminder of the strains for diplomatic relations that Scotland's decision to release Megrahi have created. (Read a timeline of events.)

Thousands of Libyans showed up at Tripoli's airport a year ago to welcome home Megrahi, who served only eight years of a 27-year minimum sentence. Today, he lives in a luxury home with an estimated $3 million that was hidden in a Swiss bank since the time of the bombing, as the Christian Science Monitor reported last December.

Megrahi’s release has caused a spat between the British government, which has categorically stated that Megrahi’s release was a mistake, and the Scottish government, which made the decision to release him. That spat continued today, when Scottish First Minister Alex Salmon, the head of Scotland’s government, defended the decision in a BBC video interview.

UK-US relations are also being tested. Some American legislators have accused British oil giant BP of playing a role in helping to secure Megrahi’s release in return for a $900 million oil exploration contract in Libya, as the Monitor recently reported. Four US senatorsCharles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, two states where many of the American victims lived – have called on Scotland to release all medical records they hold on Megrahi.

Britain faces domestic tensions as well over the incident. On Thursday, a British human rights lawyer called for an independent inquiry into the case, citing a secret report that could raise doubts about Megrahi’s guilt, according to the Guardian. Alan Miller, head of the Scottish human rights commission, said a classified UK intelligence report that he hasn't seen is “believed to cast serious doubts on prosecution claims that Megrahi used a specific Swiss timer for the bomb."

Megrahi’s lawyers have long claimed that the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by Palestinians with Iranian backing. Some believe Libya only accepted responsibility for the bombing, even agreeing in 2003 to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the victims “as a quick and easy way to shake off its pariah status,” reports the Associated Press.

Megrahi has previously said that he wasn't a Libyan intelligence agent, that he hadn't been in Malta, where the explosive device was placed on the plane. These claims were found to be false at his trial by a panel of three Scottish judges.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi may be tempted to celebrate the release and continued health of his former agent. But the British government says doing so would be a tasteless disregard for the “worst act of terrorism in British history."

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