Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who always said he was not responsible for bringing down the jumbo jet on the Scottish town and killing 270 people, died in his bed in Tripoli on Sunday surrounded by family.
His release from jail in 2009 caused huge controversy in Britain and the United States, where most of the victims were from. But his death at 60 from cancer barely made the television news in Libya, where people are focused on reconstruction after overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed war last year.
Outside the Megrahi home in Tripoli, less than a dozen men sat in plastic chairs sipping tea and offering condolences. Little fanfare was expected for a man seen by many as an embarrassing reminder of Gaddafi’s rule, which saw Libya become a pariah state that suffered international sanctions for years.
For his family, courted by Gaddafi before last year’s revolt and by foreign journalists since, the death offered closure. “I myself heard Abdul Basset always saying that if God gives me life and health I will appeal my case and prove my innocence,” his cousin Rashed Megrahi said. “We see his death as a mercy - he has rested and so have we.” Megrahi was found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing in 2001 but was freed in 2009 and returned to Libya because he had terminal cancer and was not expected to live long. The decision by officials in Scotland to repatriate Megrahi angered relatives of many victims, 189 of whom were American, and was criticized by Washington as he received a hero’s welcome from Gaddafi, who was killed by rebels last year.
That Megrahi survived for nearly three years after his release from jail caused discomfort in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting the United States on Sunday, said Megrahi should never have been freed. The White House said it would not end the quest for justice and Scottish leader Alex Salmond said Scottish lawyers were still seeking other suspects. Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), keen to distance themselves from the bombing and Megrahi, has said it would work with the Scottish government over the possible involvement of others in the 1988 attack.
Megrahi, the only person convicted for the bombing, was found guilty under Scottish law of secretly loading a suitcase bomb onto a plane at Malta’s Luqa Airport, where he was head of operations for Libyan Arab Airlines in December 1988.
The suitcase was transferred at Frankfurt to another flight and then onto New York-bound PanAm Flight 103 at London’s Heathrow airport, concluded Scottish judges sitting at a converted Dutch military base selected as a neutral trial venue.
Megrahi, handed over by Gaddafi under a UN-brokered deal, always insisted he was merely an airline executive, not a Libyan intelligence agent as prosecutors charged.
His trial was part of a process of rapprochement by which Gaddafi distanced himself from association with groups regarded as terrorists in the West and secured renewed cooperation with Western firms keen to exploit Libya’s oil and gas reserves.
Many people in Britain say they believe Megrahi was a scapegoat and families of the victims fear they will never know the truth.
Megrahi told Reuters in October the West had exaggerated his role and the truth about what happened would emerge soon. But his brother Abdulhakim said he was too sick to utter anything on his deathbed and anything he may have known died with him.
“He was smiling before he died,” another brother, Mohammed, said. “He died in his home and country, an innocent man.”