A Lockerbie Timeline: From the Murder of 270 People in the Flight 103 Bombing through the Release of the Convicted Bomber

By Patrick Goodenough | July 19, 2010 | 11:48 PM EDT

The aftermath of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988. (AP Photo/File)

(Editor’s note: Updated, with links to pertinent documents)

(CNSNews.com) – From the atrocity 22 years ago to today’s controversy, a Lockerbie timeline follows:

Dec. 21, 1988
PanAm flight 103 is destroyed at 31,000 feet, 38 minutes after taking off from Heathrow, London, bound for New York City. All 259 people onboard are killed, along with 11 people on the ground, where the wreckage lands on the Scottish border town of Lockerbie. Of the dead, 189 are Americans.

Nov. 13, 1991
Libyans Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah are indicted on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder, and violating British aviation legislation.

Apr. 1992
U.N. Security council imposes sanctions against Libya after Muammar Gaddafi refuses to hand over suspects.

Apr. 1999
After lengthy negotiations and mediation by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others, Gaddafi agrees to surrender suspects, who fly to the Netherlands to stand trial.

May 2000
Megrahi and Fhimah go on trial at a specially convened Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands.

(In early days of trial, court hears claims that a Palestinian terrorist group, the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian-General Command (PFLP-GC) was responsible. A retired detective chief inspector told the court that the group became an early “focus of attention” because of arrests of some of its members in Germany just two months before PanAm 103 was destroyed. One of them, Marwan Kreeshat, had been linked to previous similar bombings. See report examining claims of Palestinian/Iranian links to Lockerbie)

The prosecution case is that the accused, members of the Libyan intelligence service, planted the bomb in a suitcase in Malta loaded onto a flight to Frankfurt, where it was transferred as unaccompanied baggage to a feeder flight for PanAm 103.

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Jan. 31, 2001
After 84 days the trial ends with Megrahi found guilty of murdering 270 people and sentenced to life imprisonment. Judges recommend a minimum of 20 years “in view of the horrendous nature of this crime.” Co-accused Fhimah is found not guilty. (see trial verdict)

Jan.-Feb. 2002
Megrahi’s appeal against conviction begins. Defense argues that key witness in original trial contradicted himself. A new witness reports an unusual break-in at Heathrow airport baggage area 18 hours before the Lockerbie bomb exploded (raising questions about whether bag containing bomb could have been introduced in London rather than in Malta.)

Mar. 2002
Megrahi loses appeal, and he is moved to a prison in Scotland to serve his sentence.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrives at an African Union special session in Tripoli on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009. (AP Photo)

Dec. 19, 2007
Straw in a letter to MacAskill explains that Britain has been unsuccessful in getting an exclusion for Megrahi into the PTA. He says Britain has decided to go ahead on Libya’s terms because “[t]he wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage.” He points out that Megrahi’s fate lies in Scotland’s hands, as any PTA request regarding the Libyan will be one for the Scottish authorities to make. (see Straw’s letter)

Dec. 2007

Libya’s General People’s Committee – its version of a cabinet – ratifies BP oil exploration deal. (see BP document making reference to this.)

Jan. 29, 2008
Libyan government officially ratifies BP deal. (see news report)

Oct. 2008
Megrahi’s lawyer announces that his client has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

May 2009
Libyan government asks for Megrahi to be moved from Scotland under the terms of the PTA. (see Libyan request)

Scottish Justice Minister MacAskill seeks the views of the British and U.S. governments. British government tells him there is no legal barrier to Megrahi’s transfer but will not provide him with details about its earlier discussions with the U.S. in this regard.

MacAskill says the U.S. government makes it clear, however, that it was assured during pre-trial negotiations that anyone convicted in the case would serve his sentence in Scotland, and there would be no prisoner transfer. On that basis, MacAskill turns down Libya’s PTA request. (see MacAskill statement explaining decision)

: Celebrating Libyans surround the convoy carrying returned convict Abdel Baset al-Megrahi after his arrival at an airport in Tripoli on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. (AP Photo)

Jul. 25, 2009
Megrahi asks to be released from prison because of his illness. (see Megrahi’s application)

Aug. 18, 2009
Megrahi asks to abandon a second appeal against conviction, and judges accept his application.

Aug. 20, 2009
The Scottish government says it is releasing Megrahi, not on the basis of the PTA, but “on compassionate grounds” to enable him “to return to Libya to die.” (see MacAskill statement).

MacAskill says that an Aug. 10 medical report “indicates that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate.” (Almost a year later, Megrahi is still alive.)

Megrahi flies home, gets “hero’s welcome” despite President Obama’s appeals to Libya to keep the reception low-key.

Gaddafi is seen on Libyan television thanking Prime Minister Gordon Brown and members of the royal family, whom he said “all contributed to encouraging the Scottish government to take this historic and courageous decision, despite the obstacles.”

Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, tells Megrahi in televised comments that “in all the trade, oil and gas deals which I have supervised, you were there on the table.”

Aug.-Sept. 2009
British government denies that release was linked to a business deal. Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a statement to lawmakers defends decision to agree to Libyans’ terms regarding the PTA, saying failure to do so would have “set back our wider national and commercial interests that flowed from normalized relations.” (see Miliband’s statement)

Britain also denies putting pressure on Scottish authorities to release Megrahi; Scotland denies coming under pressure from London to do so.

BP confirms it lobbied the British government in late 2007 over the Libya deal and problems surrounding the PTA. But it says its advice to the government did not relate to Megrahi, as his case fell within Scotland’s jurisdiction.

Jul. 2010
Four U.S. senators call for inquiry into any link between Megrahi’s release and BP deals in Libya. (see letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

Senate Foreign Relations Committee agrees to hold hearing on the matter on July 29. (see statement by chairman Sen. John Kerry)
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow