Libyan rebels are consolidating their hold in the capital city of Tripoli–but the end of Moammar Ghadafi’s strong-arm rule may not create an opening to secure the extradition of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who’d been convicted for helping to plot the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In August 2009, a Scottish prison board released al-Megrahi from serving a life sentence and allowed him to return to Libya, on humanitarian grounds: Doctors determined that the bomber, who was suffering from terminal cancer, had just three months to live. But last month–some two years later–al-Megrahi was spotted on video attending a pro-Gadhafi rally in Tripoli.
It seems that al-Megrahi’s health has lately taken another turn for the worse, however: When CNN’s Nic Robertson found al-Megrahi over the weekend at a villa in Tripoli, he was unable to question him about his role in the terrorist attack that killed 270 people. Al-Megrahi was unable to focus on any questions, since he was drifting in and out of consciousness, Robertson reported Sunday:
“I was expecting al-Megrahi to be in a comfy armchair, but he was not,” Robertson reported. “Beneath the blankets [of his hospital bed] was al-Megrahi, eyes shut, inert. … The oxygen mask on his face, … the drip hanging a foot from his head. His skin seemed paper-thin, his face sallow and sunken. … There is no movement. His eyes remain shut.”
Al-Megrahi’s son Khaled told Robertson that the family has been trying to care for his father at home; he’d been removed from a Tripoli hospital shortly before the Libyan rebels entered the capital city last week. “If you send him to Scotland, he will die by the way. Here or there,” Khaled told CNN.
Meanwhile, a representative of the Libyan opposition National Transition Council said Sunday that the body has no plans to extradite al-Megrahi to the United Kingdom or the United States.
“Al-Megrahi has already been judged once and he will not be judged again,” NTC minister Mohammed al-Alagi told reporters in Tripoli Sunday, the New York Times reported. “We do not hand over Libyan citizens; Gadhafi does.”
The State Department said Monday however that it has requested in the past week that Libya’s transitional leaders review the Megrahi case.
“We asked the TNC to, as soon as it can, take a hard look what it thinks ought to happen with Mr. Megrahi, and it is committed to do that,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Monday, using the abbreviation the State Department uses for Libya’s National Transition Council.
Nuland also said the Justice Department is looking at the matter.
To date, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has formally requested Megrahi’s extradition, nor is he currently facing outstanding charges abroad.
American lawmakers–in particular from the New York and New Jersey delegations that were home to many of the victims of the Pan Am 103 attack–have been pushing for investigation of Megrahi’s suspicious release two years ago and for some sort of due process. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) for one expressed skepticism Monday about the latest reports of al-Megrahi’s decline:
“This wouldn’t be the first time that Libyan officials claimed al-Megrahi was on his death bed,” Schumer said in a statement Monday. “We’re going to need a lot more verification than the word of local Libyan officials. There is no justifiable basis for the rebels’ decision to shield this convicted terrorist.”
Some investigators and writers who have studied the Pan Am 103 bombing have previously raised questions about the strength of the evidence used to convict al-Megrahi. (The London Review of Books’s Hugh Miles reported in 2007 on one prevailing alternative theory of the case: that Iranian-backed Palestinian militants carried out the bombing as revenge for the 1988 U.S. downing of an Iranian civilian airliner.) Robertson’s report suggests that the only man convicted in the case may not be around much longer to provide any information he may have.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated with the State Department’s comments Monday that it has requested that Libya’s National Transition Council review the Megrahi case.