President Mandela took a particular interest in helping to resolve the long-running dispute between Gaddafi’s Libya, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other, over bringing to trial the two Libyans who were indicted in November 1991 and accused of sabotaging Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed at the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, with the loss of 270 lives. As early as 1992, Mandela informally approached President George H.W. Bush with a proposal to have the two indicted Libyans tried in a third country. Bush reacted favourably to the proposal, as did President François Mitterrand of France and King Juan Carlos I of Spain. In November 1994 – six months after his election as president – Mandela formally proposed that South Africa should be the venue for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial.
However, British Prime Minister John Major flatly rejected the idea saying the British government did not have confidence in foreign courts. A further three years elapsed until Mandela’s offer was repeated to Major’s successor, Tony Blair, when the president visited London in July 1997. Later the same year, at the 1997 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Edinburgh in October 1997, Mandela warned:
“No one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge.”
A compromise solution was then agreed for a trial to be held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, governed by Scots law, and President Mandela began negotiations with Colonel Gaddafi for the handover of the two accused (Megrahi and Fhimah) in April 1999. At the end of their nine-month trial, the verdict was announced on 31 January 2001. Fhimah was found not guilty, but Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish jail. Megrahi’s initial appeal was turned down in March 2002, and former president Mandela went to visit him in Barlinnie prison on 10 June 2002.
‘Megrahi is all alone’, Mandela told a packed press conference in the prison’s visitors room. ‘He has nobody he can talk to. It is psychological persecution that a man must stay for the length of his long sentence all alone. It would be fair if he were transferred to a Muslim country — and there are Muslim countries which are trusted by the West. It will make it easier for his family to visit him if he is in a place like the kingdom of Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt.’
Megrahi was subsequently moved to Greenock jail and out of solitary confinement. In August 2009 Megrahi, suffering from cancer and expected to have only 3 months left to live, was released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya. The Nelson Mandela Foundation expressed its support for the decision to release Megrahi in a letter sent to the Scottish Government on behalf of Mandela.