In Libya, Mystery Shrouds Handover of Lockerbie Suspect to U.S.

The transfer of a Libyan suspect to the United States to stand trial in the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing has stoked tensions in Libya, where some in the divided country saw the handover, under murky circumstances, as an abduction rather than an extradition.

The United States said on Sunday that the F.B.I. had arrested the suspect, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud, in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which was bound for New York from London when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 aboard. American prosecutors say that Mr. Mas’ud delivered to accomplices the suitcase containing the bomb used in the attack.

It was not immediately clear who had handed Mr. Mas’ud over to the Americans. Libya has for years been a fractious country with competing governments in the eastern and western parts and a host of regional militias also exercising local control. The internationally recognized interim government, based in the country’s west, has not commented on the transfer and little is known about the role the Libyan authorities played. U.S. officials did not provide details of the handover.

But the possibility that a militia turned him over or that the interim government did so to shore up American support were criticized in some corners of Libya.

“Does this gang think that handing over a Libyan citizen through abduction will make the government last longer?” an eastern Libyan politician, Ahmed al-Sharkse, wrote on Twitter. Mr. Sharkse is an opponent of the interim government, which is based in the capital, Tripoli.

The Libyan Parliament on Monday accused anyone involved in Mr. Mas’ud’s capture and handover of “high treason” and demanded that the public prosecutor take legal action.

Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, the prime minister of Libya, leads an interim government, backed by the United Nations, that was formed last year to try to overcome the country’s divisions.Credit…Pool photo by Chris J. Ratcliffe

The interim government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba and backed by the United Nations, was formed last year to try to overcome the country’s divisions. But the Parliament is based in the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya, a competing power center in territory controlled by a militia leader.

The Dbeiba government “insists on going ahead with selling everything for the sake of staying in power in a stark violation of the rule of law,” read a post on Twitter from Zahra’ Langhi, a member of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, the group that led to the creation of the interim government.

Others were upset that the transfer had dredged up one of the most troubling chapters in Libya’s modern history — a terrorist attack that turned the country into an international pariah for years — and which many hoped had been put to rest.

Mr. Mas’ud, a former intelligence officer in the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator, was freed from prison in Libya this year after serving a 10-year sentence on charges of working against the revolution that toppled the dictatorship. About a month ago, his family claimed that he had been abducted from his home in Tripoli by gunmen in plainclothes.

Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, a think tank, said he had learned independently that Mr. Mas’ud had been handed over to an armed group loyal to the interim government after being taken from his home.

“This cannot be called an extradition per se,” Mr. Badi said. “It’s more of a deal.”

Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the Crisis Group, an international think tank, underscored the mystery.

“We don’t know at this point whether the Libyan authorities cooperated with, consented to or acquiesced with this operation,” he said.

Mr. Badi said that he believed the Dbeiba administration was eager to curry favor with Washington to shore up the government’s precarious position. The Libyan Parliament has declared the government in Tripoli illegitimate after elections scheduled for last year were scrapped.

Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud was an intelligence officer. He is now in the United States under F.B.I. arrest.Credit…Alexandria Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

Another Libya analyst, Jalel Harchaoui, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that the backlash against the handover came from the perception that the United States may have made a deal that empowers militias — widely seen as destabilizing forces that obstruct the reunification of the country.

“The Libyan people don’t like it. They don’t like it one bit,” he said. “It scares them because it gives legitimacy to armed groups. Those armed groups kill, torture and arrest people and keep them in dungeons for years.”

Mr. Harchaoui said he had learned that a paramilitary group which controls the neighborhood where Mr. Mas’ud lived abducted him in November and then handed him to a militia known as the Joint Operations Force, which then took him to the western city of Misrata. The Joint Operations Force, which is loyal to the interim government, has been accused by rights groups of executions and torture.

The reports of Mr. Mas’ud’s having been abducted from his home by a militia and then being handed to a second armed group could not be independently confirmed by Libyan or American officials. Representatives for the Libyan prime minister and foreign minister did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Debris from Pan Am Flight 103. The deadly bombing of the plane turned Libya into an international pariah for years.Credit…Roy Letkey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Finucane, the Crisis Group analyst, who is a former State Department legal adviser, said that a 2012 confession in which Mr. Mas’ud allegedly admitted to involvement in the Lockerbie bombing to a Libyan security officer was expected to feature prominently in the trial.

The charges against Mr. Mas’ud include the destruction of an aircraft resulting in fatalities. He appeared in U.S. District Court in Washington on Monday and could face a sentence of life in prison if found guilty.

Libya and the United States do not have an extradition treaty, but the Libyan foreign minister, Najla el-Mangoush, told the BBC last year that Libya could work with Washington on handing over Mr. Mas’ud.

Legal experts pointed to numerous complications in the case, including proving the validity of the 2012 confession.

“The events of this trial took place 34 years ago and a world away. That of course presents certain challenges,” Mr. Finucane said.

Two other suspects, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, stood trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law after Libya refused to hand them over to the United States or Britain. Mr. Fhimah was acquitted while Mr. al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.

Vivian Yee contributed reporting.

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