Aug 23, 2009 1 Comment ›› Pat Dollard
Is he the evil perpetrator of the deadliest terrorist attack in British history, or a sick old man, a loving father and grandfather, who has suffered a terrible miscarriage of justice? Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi put on a virtuoso performance when The Times came calling yesterday.
His house, in the Dimachk area of Tripoli, was not hard to find. Policemen stood guard outside. The road was lined with the BMWs of smartly dressed friends and relatives who had come to pay their respects. The high outer walls were festooned with fairy lights and with pictures of the Lockerbie bomber as he looked when he left Libya more than a decade ago. In the garden stood a marquee where he had evidently been welcomed home the previous night.
We sent in our business cards and waited, more in hope than expectation. But ten minutes later we were ushered into the spacious hall of the distinctly plush villa where chandeliers hung above a marble floor â€” a far cry from the Scottish prisons where al-Megrahi has spent the past eight years. His family bought the house a couple of years ago with help from the Libyan Government.
The man himself was waiting in a reception room at the top of a wide and curving staircase; the curtains were drawn against the fierce afternoon sun and tropical fish swam in illuminated tanks.
He looked weak and grey, far older than his 57 years and scarcely recognisable as the man I last saw at his trial in the Netherlands in 2001. He was supporting himself on a walking stick. Like everyone else he wore flowing Arab robes of spotless white â€” â€œnot what I wore in prisonâ€, he joked in a soft voice and fluent English. He was seeing us, he explained, â€œbecause you came to our house. It is our culture.â€
We sat on sofas. No tea was offered because it is Ramadan. To be free, he said, was â€œsomething amazing. Iâ€™m very, very happy.â€ When the doctors had told him he had just a few months left to live â€œthis was my hope and wish â€” to be back with my family before I pass away . . . I always believed I would come back if justice prevailedâ€.
His mother, 86, had not stopped crying, he said. â€œI told her, â€˜You should laugh, not cryâ€™. She doesnâ€™t know Iâ€™m ill.â€ He asked us not to tell her.
Engineers have rigged up a video link next to a large black plasma television so that al-Megrahi could talk to prison officers in Scotland every two weeks â€” one of the conditions of his release.
As al-Megrahi was flying home in one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafiâ€™s personal jets on Thursday, President Obama sought to add another condition. He said that al-Megrahi should live out his days under house arrest. Al-Megrahi laughed. â€œHe knows Iâ€™m a very ill person. You know what kind of illness I have. The only place I have to go is the hospital for medical treatment. Iâ€™m not interested in going anywhere else. Donâ€™t worry, Mr Obama â€” itâ€™s just three months.â€
He did not come across as bitter or angry but continued to insist on his innocence, as he has done from the day of his conviction. He abandoned his appeal, he said, not because he was guilty but to give himself the best possible chance of going home before he died. He had applied to be freed on compassionate grounds and also to be transferred to a Libyan prison under the terms of an agreement Britain and Libya signed in April. One of the conditions of the latter was that all legal proceedings had to be finished.
He denied reports that he had been pressured to drop the appeal by a Scottish or British government terrified that such a hearing would expose a grave miscarriage of justice, but he added: â€œIf there is justice in the UK I would be acquitted or the verdict would be quashed because it was unsafe. There was a miscarriage of justice.â€
Al-Megrahi promised that before he died he would present new evidence through his Scottish lawyers that would exonerate him. â€œMy message to the British and Scottish communities is that I will put out the evidence and ask them to be the jury,â€ he said. He refused to elaborate.
Asked who, then, was responsible for the deaths of 270 people who died in the Lockerbie bombing, al-Megrahi smiled. â€œItâ€™s a very good question but Iâ€™m not the right person to ask.â€ He insisted that it was not Libya and would not be drawn on suggestions that it was Syria, Iran or the Palestinians.
He said that he understood why many of the victimsâ€™ relatives were angry at his release. â€œThey have hatred for me. Itâ€™s natural to behave like this,â€ he said, although he pointedly added that others had written to him in prison to say that they forgave him whether he was guilty or innocent. He appealed for the familiesâ€™ understanding. â€œThey believe Iâ€™m guilty which in reality Iâ€™m not. One day the truth wonâ€™t be hiding as it is now. We have an Arab saying: â€˜The truth never diesâ€™.â€
As the conversation grew more serious and more politically sensitive, relatives intervened to say that al-Megrahi was tired and that the interview should end. His mother was led in. She was frail but manifestly buoyed by the return of a son whom she has seen just twice in a decade. â€œThank God heâ€™s here again and well,â€ she said.
On cue, other members of the family drifted in â€” all four of al-Megrahiâ€™s sons, his rather beautiful daughter, his two grandchildren and assorted others. The children all lived in Glasgow for some of the time al-Megrahi was incarcerated there. They showed off their English and joked about whether they supported Celtic or Rangers. Al-Megrahi pointed to the youngest son and pointed out that he was only 3Â½ when he left.
His daughter said: â€œWeâ€™re all very excited to see him back home. Itâ€™s the biggest joy for the entire family.
His eldest son, Khalid, said that the jubilation was all the greater because his fatherâ€™s coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. â€œMany of our relatives have been coming to congratulate him on his return,â€ he said. â€œThey all wanted to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan with him.â€
Khalid, who was with his father on the flight back to Libya, said that the journey had been very tiring for him. He added that he had only been assured of his fatherâ€™s release hours before it was announced publicly by the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill on Thursday.
Al-Megrahi then suggested a family photograph. Everyone crowded around him, wreathed in smiles.
â€œThis is an exclusive,â€ he proclaimed, and indeed it was: the only picture of the only person convicted of killing 270 innocent men and women in anything other than a courtroom, or on his way to or from prison. Indeed, amid all the bonhomie one had to keep reminding oneself that the former Libyan intelligence agent had not been acquitted or in any way exonerated of that awful crime, simply released because he will die soon.
Our Libyan translator asked to be photographed with al-Megrahi, for he is something not far short of a hero in his own country. The photo session over, relatives ushered us out with polite but unmistakable firmness.