The Passing of the Lockerbie Bomber: Have More Secrets Died in Libya?

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Manoocher Deghati / AFP / Getty Images

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi (C) being escorted by security officers in Tripoli on February 18, 1992. Megrahi, the only person convicted over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in which 270 people were killed, died on May 20, 2012.

Now that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi is in the grave, will there ever be answers to the controversies that surrounded him? Megrahi was the only man convicted of the 1988 bomb attack on PanAm Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland and killed 270 people. He died at his home in the Libyan capital on Sunday, nearly three years after he was freed from a Scottish prison allegedly on compassionate grounds, having been declared to be on the verge of death from the ravages of prostate cancer. Apart from the question over the wonder drug that seems to have prolonged Megrahi's life, there is still outrage over whether he was freed in exchange for lucrative British oil concessions; and whether Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence official, was merely a scapegoat and shouldn't have been convicted in the first place.

In an international trial in 2001 held in the Netherlands, Megrahi was convicted of bringing down the Boeing 747, in what was then the worst terrorist attack against Westerners until 9/11. He was sentenced to 27 years, and jailed in Scotland. But in a stunning about-turn in August 2009, Scottish officials freed Megrahi and allowed him to fly home to Tripoli on a Libyan government jet, personally escorted by Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam. Scottish officials have always insisted that they freed Megrahi purely on medical grounds, since doctors — albeit including experts hired by the Gaddafi regime — declared that he had just three months to live.

For Gaddafi's Libya, Megrahi's homecoming was a pivotal moment, securing Saif's status as his father's heir and allowing the dictator to trumpet the release as a victory over Western foes. In an interview at his home in Tripoli in 2010, Saif told TIME he had "worked very hard" to get Megrahi released. "I am very proud of it, because I think he is innocent and he is very ill," he told me. "It is one of my biggest achievements, personally." And then, in 2011, a Libyan uprising turned into a revolution that ended the decades long rule of the Gaddafis.

There are few left alive to tell the real story behind Lockerbie. Gaddafi is, of course, dead. And his veteran oil minister Shokri Ghanem died mysteriously in Vienna last month, never having disclosed whether an oil deal was behind Megrahi's freedom. Only Saif al-Islam Gaddafi may have the answers. Libyan officials told TIME in Tripoli earlier this month that Saif would be brought to court later this year. But, for now, he is a prisoner of a Libyan militia and in a secret location, in spite of demands by the International Criminal Courts that he be remanded to The Hague for trial.

Was Megrahi's freedom linked to a petroleum deal? Several U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have questioned whether Megrahi was freed in order to smooth the way for huge British deals in oil-rich Libya. The British certainly had a lot banking on Libyan cooperation. In 2007, BP signed a $900-million oil and gas exploration contract. But as Libyan officials delayed the ratification of BP's contract, company officials lobbied the British government for help. In a statement in July, 2010, BP said it had told British officials that it was concerned about the "slow progress" of a prisoner transfer swap under discussion with Libyan officials. "We were aware that this could have a negative impact on U.K. commercial interests, including the ratification by the Libyan government of BP's exploration agreement," the BP statement said. In his interview earlier in 2010, Saif told me that Libyan officials had repeatedly refused British requests to exclude Megrahi from the list of Libyan prisoners being considered for release. When Scotland decided to free Megrahi, BP distanced itself from the move, simply stating, "It is not for BP to comment on the decision of the Scottish government." Nevertheless, BP's deal was ratified within weeks of Megrahi's return to Libya.

The rumpus over Megrahi's release obscured another issue. Was he in fact innocent? Megrahi has protested his innocence from the start, intimating that he was the fall guy in a far bigger political drama (A codefendent, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah was acquitted in the 2001 trial). The fathers of two British victims, who sat through the trial in the Netherlands, have told journalists, including TIME, that they believe Megrahi was innocent. "I came away 80 to 90% convinced that this man was not guilty," John Mosey, whose 19-year-old daughter died aboard PanAm 103, told me in 2010. "It was very clear that there was political interference." Likewise, Jim Swire, whose 24-year-old daughter was killed in the attack, has fought a long campaign to reopen the investigation, believing that Megrahi was innocent.

For its part, Gaddafi never admitted to Libya's involvement in Lockerbie, instead agreeing to pay $270 million to families of the victims as part of a deal with U.S. officials to end sanctions — not, Gaddafi insisted, as an admission of guilt. That left some to wonder whether Gaddafi offered Megrahi up as a sacrificial lamb, for the sake of a lucrative relationship with Western countries, which invested billions in Libya during Gaddafi's last few years, when relations warmed between Tripoli and the West.

As he lay dying, Megrahi, barely able to speak any longer, again asserted his innocence last December in his last videotaped interview, which was included in an Al-Jazeera documentary, "Lockerbie: Case Closed." "I am an innocent man," he told a British former police officer George Thomson, who believed Megrahi had been framed. "I am about to die and I ask now to be left in peace with my family."

Family members said he had been treated with a new cancer drug called abiraterone, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April, 2011. Britain's National Health Service allowed its use only last week, after the news that Megrahi had been taking it caused a furor in the British press over its unavailability at home.