Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat- Despite his deteriorating health, Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi still manages to climb up the stairs each day to the second floor of his two-story house in the New Damascus district in west Tripoli. The man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing spends his freedom heavily sedated lying on a bed in his hometown.
It is now the holy month of Ramadan in Libya, and throughout the entire Islamic world. Al-Megrahi has received thousands of visitors since his return, and his family and friends convince these visitors to return to the al-Megrahi home at sunset, after iftar [break of fast]. Once everybody has eaten in the tents which the al-Megrahi family has set up for just this purpose, Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi waits in the hospitality room for his visitors.
Visitors meet Al-Megrahi in groups of 5, and they are asked by the family not to try to engage Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi in conversation due to his ill health, but merely restrict themselves to shaking his hand and bidding him salaam. The guests are also asked to leave quickly in order to make room for the hundreds of others who are waiting to visit with al-Megrahi.
When Asharq Al-Awsat visited al-Megrahi on Monday, he was sitting down with his body titled backwards; he was wearing the traditional Libyan white robe and golden embroidered vest. Al-Megrahi’s face was pale and drawn, and he did not stop to smile for any of his visitors, but rather replied in an automatic manner and in a low voice to every handshake “Allah ya’salimak [God bless you].”
At around 9.30 pm, following Aisha prayers, the number of guests arriving at the al-Megrahi house increases. The guests are offered cups of tea and coffee and bottles of water. At around 2am, food such as rice, pasta, vegetables, and meat, are also offered to the guests, in preparation for Fajr prayers and the beginning of the next day’s fast.
The visitors wishing to see al-Megrahi did not stop, and each hour brought even more guests from all across Libya who wished to congratulate Abdel-Basset al-Megrahi’s wife on the safe return of her husband.
Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi’s wife informed Asharq Al-Awsat “Abdul-Basset was a political hostage; he paid 10 years of his life to support his country. It is the right of the Libyans to celebrate his return to his family. God puts right every injustice.”
Ali al-Megrahi, Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi’s father, believes that the United States of America and Britain are responsible for the false accusations and the imprisonment of his son. He revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that his son was supposed to be revealed with the other man accused of the Lockerbie bombing Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima [who was found not guilty by a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands], but the US intervened to prevent this and influence a sentence of life imprisonment.
Asked for the reasons behind his son’s imprisonment, Ali al-Megrahi said that all of this happened in order to blackmail Libya for its oil resources. He said “What happened to my son could have happened to any citizen that belongs to a country that has oil, like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia” adding “after what happened, I no longer trust the British or the Scottish governments.”
Al-Megrahi’s father also informed Asharq Al-Awsat “I gave my son the best upbringing, and what he was handed over for trail I was certain of his innocence and that he would return to his home, his family, and his children. If there was even one piece of evidence that he was responsible for blowing up the airplane, I would have killed him with my own hands. Everybody in the neighborhood knows his character since he was a child, and many of the neighbors have named their children after him, for his fame amongst the tribe and family, his politeness, his love for the people, his commitment to morality and integrity, and his non-aggressive [nature] towards others.”
Ali al-Megrahi also revealed that the disease which his son is suffering from is not as dangerous as some in the media are portraying it, saying “he was diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago, and we would bring him medicinal herbs from the Chinese herb market in Britain, he was also treated with other medicine in prison in Scotland.” Al-Megrahi senior added “a relative was diagnosed with a similar disease [prostate cancer] and he was treated and recovered completely. We hope that Abdul-Basset recovers his health as well.”
He said “I see that he is getting better day after day, and [his health] is much better than the first day that he returned to his homeland. I think that the sick are not just cured by medicine, but also by having a high morale and a sense of freedom, and these were not available to Abdul-Basset in prison.”
Asked whether he spoke to his son about the Lockerbie bombing case, or whether Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi intents to write his memoirs and tell the true story of what happened, Ali al-Megrahi tells Asharq Al-Awsat “These matters are all premature. These days we are hardly able to rest due to the large number of visitors who come to the al-Megrahi home to congratulate Abdul-Basset on his return. These large crowds may continue to visit the house for another two weeks. We will wait and see.”
Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi has four brothers; Abdul-Halim, Abdul-Nasser, Mohamed, and Saleh. The brothers met with guests who congratulated them on the return of their brother.
The eldest al-Megrahi brother, Mohamed Ali al-Megrahi said that the thousands of people who traveled from across Libya to congratulate the family on the safe return of Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi, was a public response that had nothing to do with politics but was rather a popular reaction to the return of a Libyan “who sacrificed ten years of his life to lift the economic blockade on his country, Libya.”
He said that his brother spent a decade imprisoned in Scotland to prove his innocence, facing a very difficult time there, adding “Abdul-Basset’s release represents a step towards finding out the truth behind who really blew up the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. In this case, my brother was the innocent who was convicted.”
Mohamed al-Megrahi, who accompanied his brother when he was handed over to British authorities ten years ago, said “we sympathize with the families of the British, American, and other victims…but we emphasize that our son is innocent of the blood of their loved ones. We are keen on good relations between [different] peoples; governments change but people remain.”
Mohamed al-Megrahi told Asharq Al-Awsat “We, as Libyans, strive towards a future where cultures converge, especially the Eastern and Western cultures, away from hatred and enmity”
Mohamed al-Megrahi went on to say “Ever since Abdul-Basset was handed over to the British on 6 April 1999, I lived with the hope that he would return, but days turned into years, and I realized that my brother had become ensnared in a political [case], not a criminal one, and so did not receive a fair trial.”
The Lockerbie bombing took place in 1988, when Pan Am Flight 747 which was traveling from Frankfurt to New York by way of London exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. 270 people from 21 different countries were killed in the explosion.
The US promised to investigate the attack, and bring those who were responsible to justice. This investigation took three years, and in 1991 the US State Department accused two Libyans, Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima and Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi of working for Libyan Intelligence and being responsible for the attack
Libya’s problems with the West, and particularly the US, can be traced back to this point. However, in recent years Tripoli has pursued a different policy with regards to the West, settling outstanding issues and attempting to reconcile in order to enter a new phase of joint cooperation.
Abdul-Basset al-Megrahi has 5 children, four sons in various stages of education, and a married daughter. His sons are Khalid, 22, Mohamed, 17, Ali, 15, and Al-Mutasim, who is 10 years of age. During his imprisonment, the al-Megrahi family experienced tough times, living off the salary of their mother, who works as a teacher in Tripoli.
Abdul-Hamid al-Megrahi, Abdul-Basset’s nephew reveals to Asharq Al-Awsat that the family lived on these two salaries, refusing to borrow money from anybody. He says that Abdul-Basset’s absence adversely affected his immediate family, and he recalls the family’s sense of sadness at Abdul-Basset’s absence from family occasions.
Speaking of his uncle’s illness, Abdul-Hamid said “I visited him in prison in the Netherlands in 2001 and he was in very good health. This disease has had an impact on him, however if he was not diagnosed with the disease, he would not have continued with the appeals process…and proven his innocence. There was no credible evidence for his conviction.”
Abdul-Hamid revealed his wishes for his uncle’s recovery to Asharq Al-Awsat, saying “I hope that he returns to how he was, and lives his natural life,” He says that his uncle was sociable by nature, and enjoyed visiting family and friends and attending weddings and other celebrations.
The family estimate that no less than 25,000 people have visited al-Megrahi since his return last Thursday, and that these visitors have come from all across Libya to do so. Al-Megrahi was also visited by the former Libyan airlines employee who was his co-defendant in the Lockerbie bombing case Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima. Fahima, who was cleared of all chares by the Scottish court, visited al-Megrahi a number of times, and expressed his happiness at al-Megrahi’s return.
Al-Megrahi’s family also said that the celebrations at al-Megrahi’s return was not an official state position, and that the Libyan leaders who celebrated this, including President Gaddafi, were only following Libyan culture and traditions of congratulating other families and tribes on happy occasions.
The Libyan guests at the al-Megrahi house did not hide their disdain for the US criticism that al-Megrahi was given a hero’s welcome upon returning to Libya, and al-Megrahi’s nephew, Mohamed Ahmed al-Megrahi said “Abdul Basset’s reception [at the airport] was spontaneous. There was no official planning to mobilize the people, for if the Libyan state had done so…no less than two million Libyans from all across Libya would have gone out to greet him.”
He added “We believe his return is a victory for truth. The Lockerbie case is a battle that the Libyan people won due to the wisdom of the Libyan leadership.”
All of Libya is watching the reaction of Arab and foreign countries in order to determine the position of each individual country. The majority of Libyans believe that the West’s desire for their oil resources was the true motive behind al-Megrahi’s incarceration.
Abdul Ali al Zawi, one of the guests of the al-Megrahi family, told Asharq Al-Awsat “Everybody wants to put pressure on Libya for the sake of its oil. Yes, we know this, they held Abdul-Basset as a hostage for this reason.”
Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader who played a leading role in securing the release of al-Megrahi, has seen his popularity increase amongst the Libyans.
Mustafa al-Najiz, from central Tripoli, told Asharq Al-Awsat “Thanks to the Leader of the Revolution [Colonel Gaddafi] and thanks to Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi [President of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation]. Saif al-Islam promised Abdul-Basset that he would visit him one day outside of prison, and that is indeed what happened.”
However the question remains; Where is the al-Megrahi family getting all of this money to enable them to receive all of these visitors, and – following Arab custom- provide them with food and drink?
Mohamed al-Megrahi said “Abdul-Basset’s family shares in the expenditure. However the state also contributes to a percentage of the expenses, but what is this percentage? This question is premature, what is important is that we provide for our guests, and that we treat them in a good manner. People are rushing to help us, but we are still able to fulfill our duty for those who wish to celebrate Abdul-Basset’s return for days to come.”