It was the worst terrorist attack in Britain's history, the deadliest assault on U.S. civilians until 9/11 and a political powder keg that roiled governments around the world. On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb exploded in the forward cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103, a jetliner flying from London to New York. Within less than a minute, the Boeing 747 splintered into thousands of pieces and fell 31,000 feet, smashing down in the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. The impact killed 11 villagers and destroyed 21 homes. None of the 259 people on board the aircraft survived.
Though investigators initially suspected a Palestinian terrorist group backed by Iran or Syria, the charred contents of one recovered suitcase which included bits of a Toshiba radio-cassette player and scraps of clothing with Maltese labels eventually led officials to a Libyan man named Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of murder in 2001, and remains the only person to have served time for the atrocity. But after serving eight years, Al-Megrahi, who suffers from terminal prostate cancer, was freed Aug. 20 from a Scottish prison on "compassionate grounds." The decision to release the 57-year-old Al-Megrahi, who continues to proclaim his innocence, sparked outrage from victims' families and drew a condemnation from the Obama Administration, which warned Libyan officials not to grant al-Megrahi "a hero's welcome" upon his return. Conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, claim al-Megrahi was a victim himself, arguing that U.S. authorities steered the investigation away from Syria and Iran in the run-up to the first Gulf War.
Born April 1, 1952 in the Libyan capitol of Tripoli. He and his family belong to the same tribe as one of Muammar Gaddafii's most trusted lieutenants. This connection was used to explain al-Megrahi's motive in the Lockerbie bombing, which prosecutors argued was retaliation for 1986 U.S. air strikes that killed one of Gaddafi's adopted children.
Attended schools in the U.S. and Great Britain, where he learned English. Later received an engineering degree from Libya's Benghazi University.
Appointed chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA), which has offices in Malta, where he traveled frequently. Also served as director of Libya's Center for Strategic Studies, a position the FBI later claimed was a cover for his actual role as a member of the Libyan Intelligence Services.
Indicted in 1991 by the U.S. Attorney General and the Scottish Lord Advocate after an investigator matches a shred of green plastic on a shirt recovered from the crash to a timing device obtained from an unexploded bomb built by Libyan-supported terrorists. The shirt is traced to a small store in Malta called Mary's House. Its owner, a man named Tony Gauci, identifies al-Megrahi in a police lineup. Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, another employee of the Libyan airline who worked with al-Megrahi in Malta, is also indicted.
Remained under house arrest in Tripoli with his wife and children until 1999 while Muammar Gaddafi stonewalls international authorities by refusing to extradite him for trial. During this period, the U.N. Security Council imposes sanctions against Libya for refusing to hand the suspects over, and al-Megrahi is added to the FBI's Most Wanted List, which places a $4 million bounty on his head.
Extradited to the Netherlands in 1999 following meetings between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and Gaddafi. The same day, the U.N. suspends its sanctions. Two months later, U.S. and Libyan officials meet face-to-face for the first time in nearly two decades.
On May 3, 2000, the trial against Al-Megrahi and his co-conspirator begins at a former NATO military base in the Netherlands. More than 230 witnesses deliver what many considered to be circumstantial evidence. Three Scottish judges unanimously convict Al-Megrahi and sentence him to life in prison. His co-defendant, however, is acquitted and allowed to go free.
Files for an appeal in 2001, claiming new evidence about a break-in at London's Heathrow Airport the night before the crash suggests the bomb could have been placed by anyone. His appeal is unanimously rejected.
In 2007, a Scottish court rules that al-Megrahi is entitled to a second appeal, saying he "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Among the court's troubling findings: prosecutors failed to tell the defense that Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper, had seen a picture of Megrahi in a magazine before picking him out of the line-up.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. In April 2009, he files another appeal, which he then drops after finding out he has less than three months to live.
"And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do."
Proclaiming his innocence in a statement issued by his lawyers after he left Scotland's Greenock prison, saying he faced an appalling choice "to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted" (New York Times, Aug. 20, 2009)
"I'm a quiet man. I never had any problems with anybody."
In television interviews during his 2000 trial (BBC, Aug. 20, 2009)
"Of course I want to go back to Tripoli. I have my wife and my five children are growing up. But I want to go back an innocent man."
As recounted by Scottish politician Sir Tam Dalyell, on his appeals (The Times of London, Oct. 31, 2008)
"It just shows that the power of oil money counts for more than justice. There have been so many attempts to let him off. It has to do with money and power and giving Gaddafi what he wants. My feelings, as a victim, apparently count for nothing."
Susan Cohen, whose only child, Theodora, was one of a group of Syracuse University students on Pan Am flight 103, on the case's political overtones (New York Times, Aug. 14, 2009)
"My deep conviction, as a 'professor of Lockerbie studies' over a 20-year period is that neither al-Megrahi nor Libya had any role in the destruction of Pan Am 103. I believe they were made a scapegoat in 1990-91 by an American government that had decided to go to war with Iraq and did not want complications with Syria and Iran, which had harboured the real perpetrators of the terrible deed."
Sir Tam Dalyell, a member of Great Britain's House of Commons from 1962 to 2005, calling al-Megrahi "the victim of one of the most spectacular (and expensive) miscarriages of justice in history" (The Times of London, Oct. 31, 2008)