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Libyans Defend Megrahi Welcome

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Years of careful negotiation to repair relations between Libya and its former adversaries, Britain and the United States, have threatened to unravel because of the welcome home given to convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. The issue was a key reason many Western dignitaries steered clear of Libyan national celebrations, this week. But, many people in Libya are baffled by the reaction.

Relatives outside Megrahi's home help unpack a truck filled with food for the many people who come here to pay their respects.

For them, there is no question that Megrahi's return is a blessing, for the simple reason that they believe he is innocent.

It is a widely held view here, but still a sensitive issue, which police officers make clear as the ex-prisoner's brother-in-law attempts to talk to VOA.

"Okay, they didn't want to make (voices of police in background) ... this is the security instruction unfortunately. They didn't like [me] to make any interview," he said.

Many still angry

The American and British governments have been furious about what many consider the hero's welcome given the former Libyan intelligence agent - the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a PanAm jumbo jet.

So, too, have many of the relatives of those killed. For them, it was understood that Megrahi would spend the rest of his life in prison. Some expressed shock about Scotland's decision to let the cancer patient go home to die. The feeling turned to disgust when crowd of Libyans celebrated his arrival at the airport. Westerners likened it to the joy expressed by some people in the Arab world because of the September 11 terror attacks.

Misunderstanding?

Libyan officials argue that the welcome has been grossly misunderstood. Abdul Majeed el-Dursi, head of Libya's foreign media corporation, says the case against Megrahi was weak and argues that he stood trial to clear his name and that of his country, which had been slapped with sanctions because of Lockerbie.

"But he volunteered to go [to trial] and to save his country the bitterness of the sanctions, which the Libyan people paid a very, very, very high price for," said el-Dursi. "We greet him for that and we think he's a courageous man and he did the right thing. "

El-Dursi and others point to a Scottish court opinion that there may have been a miscarriage of justice in Megrahi's case. And, although Libya had a history of backing terrorists, there were other suspects. Top on the list had been Iran, still mourning the passengers on a civilian airplane shot down by the U.S. Navy, earlier that year.

Sympathy for Lockerbie victims

El-Dursi and others stress their sympathy for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Megrahi's father told the Asharq Al-Awsa newspaper recently that, if there was proof his son had committed so horrible a crime, he would kill him, himself.

In a small mosque in Tripoli's old city, the imam echoes the views of many when he says the return of Megrahi is a blessing.

He adds it is especially good as it coincides with celebrations of the Libyan revolution and the holy month of Ramadan.

The Scottish decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, while angering many in the West, is taken at face value here in Libya - and with gratitude.

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