The Obama administration has asked Libya's opposition to review the case of the ailing former Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the Lockerbie bombing who has been living in Tripoli since his release from a Scottish prison two years ago, the State Department said Monday.
The department said it wants the opposition to look into the handling and terms of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's return to Libya. Al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds in 2009 and returned home to a hero's welcome from supporters of Moammar Gadhafi. He is now near death and slipping in and out of consciousness, according to his brother. His release by Scottish authorities was loudly protested by the U.S., as were the circumstances of his return to Libya.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials have spoken to senior members of Libya's Transitional National Council about the case. She said the TNC had agreed to look into it once it consolidates control over the country and establishes a fully functioning government.
"We asked the TNC to, as soon as it can, take a hard look at what it thinks ought to happen with Mr. Megrahi, and it is committed to do that," she told reporters.
"This is a new day in Libya," Nuland said. "This is a guy with blood on his hands, the lives of innocents. Libya itself under Gadhafi made a hero of this guy. Presumably, a new, free, democratic Libya would have a different attitude towards a convicted terrorist. So it is in that spirit that the TNC will look at this case."
Also Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. has no indication that Gadhafi has left Libya. The Algerian foreign ministry said Gadhafi's wife and other relatives fled to Algeria. Libyan rebels have effectively ended Gadhafi's rule, but have yet to find the longtime leader. Carney said the administration is continuing to work with rebels and NATO partners as the situation in Libya unfolds and would pass on information about Gadhafi's whereabouts if it had them.
Calls for al-Megrahi to be returned to prison have increased in the U.S. and Europe since rebel forces seized control of Tripoli last week, but it is not clear whether that could happen. The Scottish government says it has no plans to ask for him to be returned, and al-Megrahi's brother says he is so close to death that there would be little point.
New York's two senators recently asked Libya's transitional government to hold al-Megrahi fully accountable for the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. One of those senators, Democrat Chuck Schumer, insisted Monday that al-Megrahi's health be independently evaluated and that the opposition should not protect him. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist," Schumer said.
On Sunday, the rebel's transitional government Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi said the renewed demands for punishment had "no meaning" because al-Megrahi had already been tried and convicted. But on Monday, he appeared to backtrack, saying officials knew the issue was important to some governments but that any discussions would have to wait until an elected government was in place
Nuland would not predict what action the new Libyan government might take and said the U.S. had not yet sought anything specific. But she suggested that Libya's new leaders could look into al-Megrahi's presence and status in Libya. "If you have a new governing authority in Libya, they can presumably review the terms under which their predecessors accepted his return to Libya," she said.
Al-Megrahi's release after serving eight years of a life sentence infuriated the families of many Lockerbie victims, most of whom were American. Some critics of his release have long suspected it was motivated by Britain's attempts to improve relations with oil-rich Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was a champion for the victims' families when she was a New York senator, has said that al-Megrahi should not have been released. Nuland said Clinton's position had not changed.
Clinton will have a chance to raise the matter directly with Libyan officials this week when she interrupts her summer vacation to attend an international conference on Libya in Paris.
But getting money and other assistance to the rebels to help them consolidate power and prepare to hold democratic elections will top the agenda at Thursday's meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya. The group is gathering for the fifth time since the uprising began in January and for the first time since Tripoli fell. The focus will be on giving the opposition access to tens of billions of dollars in frozen Gadhafi regime assets to launch a credible and transparent transition.