What was billed as an act of compassion is spiraling into a major political headache. British officials are facing hard questions on the circumstances of the release of terminally ill convicted Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. Questions are swirling over how the decision was made, by whom and why. The world and the victims' families deserve answers.
On Sunday, a letter from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was released that contradicted initial denials of behind-the-scenes meetings between London and Tripoli. The "Dear Moammar" missive revealed that the two leaders had held an impromptu al-Megrahi summit meeting at the Group of Eight conference in L'Aquila, Italy, in July.
The prime minister knew that releasing a bomber would be politically explosive. Mr. Brown wrote to Col. Gadhafi, reminding him that the two men had reached an understanding that if al-Megrahi were to be set free, his reception would be "a purely private family occasion," not the mass welcome-home party it became. Since then, Mr. Brown has been silent on the issue, though one of his spokesmen said, "I don't see that anyone can argue that this gives succor" to terrorists. We frankly don't see how anyone can argue otherwise. Releasing an airline bomber from prison obviously encourages other terrorists because it shows the target society isn't serious about defending itself or punishing those guilty of mass-murdering its citizens.
Al-Megrahi has long been a political pawn. For years, Tripoli steadfastly refused to turn him over for trial, but in 1999, Libya began to pursue a new policy of openness and shipped off al-Megrahi along with another accused bomber, Amin Khalifa Fhimah, who was acquitted. In return, the United Nations suspended sanctions that had been imposed against Libya in the early 1990s. In 2003, Libya pledged to pay $2.7 billion in reparations to the families of those killed in the Pan Am 103 bombing, and the United Nations canceled the sanctions.
From Libya's perspective, al-Megrahi was a sacrificial lamb used to placate an unreasonable world. He is a "hero who sacrificed himself to lift the embargo on our country," an anonymous Libyan source said last week on Beirut's Al Manar TV. "To allow him to spend the remainder of his days in his homeland is the least that Libya can offer this man who has been the victim of an international injustice."
It is a good time for the United States to take another look into the Pan Am 103 bombing. In April 2003, coalition forces took into custody Khala Khadr al-Salahat, a member of the Abu Nidal Organization who had found safe haven in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He is believed to be the person who made the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. There has been no word on him since he was detained. If he is still in custody, perhaps he might be able to shed some light on the events and al-Megrahi's involvement in particular.
Al-Megrahi said he wants to write a book about the bombing that will expose everything he knows and prove his innocence. In a statement after leaving Greenock Prison, he said, "I had most to gain and nothing to lose about the whole truth coming out -- until my diagnosis of cancer." Yet if there are salient facts yet to be known, we wonder why al-Megrahi did not bring them up at his trial or his appeal, or why he did not write this book during his eight years in prison.
Whatever al-Megrahi reveals before his imminent demise is unlikely to be the whole truth -- if his farewell missive contains any reality at all. But we expect fiction from a terrorist. That's not what we expect from a British prime minister.