The Lockerbie Bomber: What’s the Story?

Abdelbaset Ali Mohment al-Megrahi, a Libyan, was the only person convicted in connection with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which a Pan Am flight was blown up over Scotland, killing all 259 people aboard as well as eleven on the ground. The flight was en route to New York and most of the victims were Americans. The bombing was generally believed to have been orchestrated by Libya’s dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi. Megrahi was a Libyan intelligence officer and the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines. After a trial in the Netherlands, Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he not be eligible for parole for 20 years. Why anyone would consider paroling a terrorist responsible for the deaths of 270 people is a question for another day.
In 2008, Megrahi claimed that he was dying of prostate cancer, and a public campaign was mounted for his release from prison in Scotland. In 2009, the Scottish government granted a “compassionate release,” ostensibly over the objections of the Obama administration, and Megrahi was sent back to Libya, allegedly with only a few months to live. He received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Libya:

Despite the physician’s opinion on the basis of which Megrahi received a “compassionate release,” he did not die. He is alive, and there is no reason to believe that his demise is imminent. The U.S. government officially protested Scotland’s decision to let Megrahi go.
Today, however, a letter from Richard LeBaron, an official at the U.S. embassy in London, came to light. LeBaron’s letter said that the Obama administration opposed Megrahi’s release, but preferred that he be set free if the alternative was transfer to a Libyan jail:

The United States told Scotland it was “far preferable” to free the Lockerbie bomber than have him transferred to a Libyan jail, leaked documents showed Sunday, amid renewed US criticism of the release.
Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times newspaper reveals that despite Washington’s opposition to Scotland’s decision last year to free Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohment al-Megrahi, it considered it the most palatable option. …
The embassy official, Richard LeBaron, wrote to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and justice officials on August 12, 2009 — a week before Megrahi’s release — saying Washington wanted Megrahi to remain in his Scottish jail.
“Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose,” LeBaron wrote.
Megrahi was eligible for transfer to a Libyan jail under a 2007 agreement between Britain and Libya, which BP had lobbied for in a bid to speed up a huge oil exploration deal it was making with the north African state.

Many on the right are up in arms, viewing this revelation as more evidence of the Obama administration’s incompetence, or even duplicity, in foreign policy. Perhaps it is. But mostly, the story is puzzling. Why would the administration have a strong preference for compassionate release ( i.e., unqualified freedom) over a prison transfer? Given the fact that Gaddafi personally welcomed Megrahi at the airport when he returned to Libya, one can only assume that Megrahi would have been released from a Libyan jail promptly; or, at worst, would have been maintained there in high style.
So, what is the difference? Was the Obama administration’s urging of “compassionate release” one more example of its foolish outreach to the Muslim world? If so, Obama was played for a fool once again, as Megrahi didn’t die on schedule and, instead, is now being treated as a jihadi hero. But it is not clear that that was what was going on. So far, we haven’t even seen the full text of LeBaron’s letter. Perhaps there is some rational explanation of the Obama administration’s conduct. This story, in short, has not yet run its course, and for the time being it makes sense to reserve judgment. Having said that, I am unable to think of a good reason why our government should favor lenient treatment for a man who murdered more than 100 Americans. Still, who knows? Maybe such a rationale will come to light.

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