Britons Question If Al-Megrahi Is Lockerbie Bomber

Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who's terminally ill, was freed from a Scottish prison last week on compassionate grounds. He was the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The decision to free him prompted much criticism in the U.S. However in Britain, many people believe that the evidence against al-Megrahi was not very good in the first place.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to the continuing fallout from the release of the man convicted in the Lockerbie bombing. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is a former Libyan intelligence agent who was freed from a Scottish prison last week on compassionate grounds after doctors said he had cancer and less than three months to live. Al-Megrahi was the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board. Eleven more were killed on the ground. The most passionate and angry opposition to that release came from the U.S. To discuss developments in Britain, we turn to NPR's Rob Gifford in London.

Good morning.

ROB GIFFORD: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The response from the British public was much more tempered, at least initially, before the big homecoming back in Libya. Why was that? Why are the British not as angry as the Americans?

GIFFORD: Well, for a start, of course, more Americans died on Flight 103 than British people. That's a very simple answer. I think a more complex answer is that there are people here, relatives of those British people who died, who have really spent the last 20 years looking into what happened and researching it and trying to find out whether al-Megrahi really did this and whether Libya was behind it. These are not just cranks. There are, of course, a lot of cranks and conspiracy theorists on the Internet, but one particular middle-class, middle-aged doctor called Jim Swire who lost his daughter in the disaster has spent years researching this.

MONTAGNE: But without going into great detail, generally speaking, what is the issue that people believe the problem - the hole is in the case?

GIFFORD: What some of these relatives have found and what has filtered through very much into the British mind is that the evidence against Mr. al-Megrahi was not water tight, that there were all sorts of holes in it in the chain of where he supposedly got the bomb and how he got it onto Flight 103. And that is what has sewn seeds of doubt in the British mind, which perhaps explains why British people do not feel quite so angry as American people.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, al-Megrahi continues to claim that he's innocent.

GIFFORD: He does. And he released a letter after he himself was released last Thursday, continuing to claim his innocence. One of the things that had to happen before he could be released, though, was that he had to drop his appeal in the Scottish court. So he was decrying the fact that he would never be able to prove his innocence because he had to drop that appeal.

MONTAGNE: But then, Rob, there are many Britons that think that Megrahi is, in fact, guilty.

GIFFORD: Oh, absolutely. There are many people here who think he should have died in Scottish jail.

MONTAGNE: There are also people in Britain who are angry because they think that this release was really all about oil, not about compassion.

GIFFORD: That's right. There are plenty of people here, both politicians and members of the general public, who believe that this was simply a trade for oil - and not just members of the general public, people who know Libya, people behind the scenes who've dealt with Libya say Colonel Gaddafi has come in from the cold. He wants to engage with the West. He wants foreign investment. And certainly, British companies want to get into Libyan oil fields. And Gaddafi has made it quite clear that if British companies want to get into Libya, they will have to - the British government will have to release al-Megrahi. And many people believe that is, in fact, the deal that has been done, although the British government has completely denied this.

MONTAGNE: Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thanks very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking with NPR's Rob Gifford in London.

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