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New Anguish in Lockerbie: Residents See More Than in Libyan's Release
Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was released on compassionate grounds, and Straw has called the controversy over the prisoner transfer agreement "academic." But the disclosure that London allowed Megrahi to be covered by the agreement nonetheless surprised U.S. officials, who say they had an understanding with the British government that he would serve out the entire sentence in Scotland.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has denied any allegation of dealmaking. On Wednesday, he said there was "no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me" to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
The governments in London and Edinburgh have not budged from what Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said on the day of Megrahi's release: The 57-year-old Libyan is dying of cancer and, in line with Scottish law and values, he -- and he alone -- was releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds so he could return home to Tripoli to die. A Libyan official told the Reuters news service last week that Megrahi had been hospitalized and was in poor condition. He has since left an intensive care unit but remains under "close observation" by a team of doctors, Reuters reported Friday.
Most Lockerbie residents know the details of that night by heart: On Dec. 21, 1988, the Pan Am flight left London's Heathrow Airport, almost 30 minutes behind schedule. At 7:03 p.m., a device hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player packed inside a suitcase exploded.
A recent BBC/ICM Research poll showed that 32 percent of Scots surveyed believe that the Lockerbie plotter should have been freed, and 20 percent of people thought the decision was made purely on humanitarian grounds.
"What about compassion for them? What about their rights?" asked catering assistant Christina Porteous, 59, pointing to a memorial that lists the names of the 259 people on the plane -- most of them American -- and the 11 people on the ground who were killed.
Like signposts pointing to unspeakable human tragedy, memorials are scattered around this town. Next to the field where the nose of the plane crashed sits a stone church with a memorial room. The town hall, which acted as a temporary morgue after the crash, bears a stained-glass window with the flags of the 21 nations that lost citizens. A giant rock marks the area where the 11 Lockerbie residents died. A plinth built of sandstone from destroyed houses recalls the part of town where the bodies of many students from Syracuse University were found.
Marjorie McQueen, a retired local council member, said helping visitors cope with loss is now the town's "raison d'être." In the past six years, more than 25,000 people have visited the memorial bearing the victims' names, in the Dryfesdale Cemetery on the outskirts of town, where three Americans were laid to rest at their families' requests. Brides from the area often place their wedding bouquets at the foot of the memorial, she said.
Recent visitors included the parents of Amy Beth Gallagher, a 22-year-old Canadian student who died in the attack. "Happy 43rd birthday," they wrote in a card tucked in a bundle of white roses. "How we wish we could all be with you to celebrate. Know that we love and miss you so very much. Hugs and Kisses. Mom and Dad."