Hillary Clinton urges Scotland to keep Lockerbie bomber

A decision on whether the apparently ill terrorist should be released or transferred is expected soon. The Libyan was given a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    A father and daughter stand in the Lockerbie memorial garden in Lockerbie, Scotland, on Aug. 13.
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Should the only person to be held legally responsible for the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 and the deaths of 270 people be allowed to die in his native Libya?

This is the question before Scotland's justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who is considering the release or transfer of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. The prospect of a move has dismayed many victims' families – in particular, relatives of the 189 Americans who died when a bomb placed in the flight's cargo hold exploded above Lockerbie, Scotland.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has talked to Mr. MacAskill and "expressed strongly" the US view that Mr. Megrahi should not be released, according to Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman. "We have made our views clear not only to Scotland, not only to the UK, but also to Libya," Mr. Crowley said at a briefing last week. "We had a fair trial. He was convicted. He's serving his time, and we think he should stay in jail."

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Attorney General Eric Holder has also contacted MacAskill, as have seven US senators, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) and John Kerry (D), both of Massachusetts.

"We know that the Scottish government shares our commitment – and the world's – to support justice and oppose acts of terrorism," the seven senators wrote in a letter to MacAskill. "That is why we urge you to ensure that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi serves the remainder of his sentence in prison in Scotland."

Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and was sentenced to life in prison (with a minimum of 27 years before being considered for parole). According to his lawyer, Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer in a late stage. It falls on MacAskill to decide whether to grant him a "compassionate" release, given his health condition, or allow him to serve the remainder of his sentence in his native Libya, under the terms of a Prisoner Transfer Treaty, which was signed between Libya and the UK last November. That second option may be complicated by an outstanding Crown appeal against the length of the original sentence. Still, a decision on a release or transfer is expected before the end of August and could arrive much sooner.

Many of the victims' families in America worry that the urging from US officials comes too late.

"It's the 11th hour," says Rosemary Wolfe, who lost her stepdaughter, Miriam, in the attack. Miriam was a drama student at Syracuse University in New York.

Mrs. Wolfe worries that the US didn't act sooner because it didn't want to appear to interfere with Scottish authority. "The US has a lot of power and persuasive abilities. If ever it should have been used, it's now," she says.

But while US families and authorities appear united against Megrahi's release or transfer, some others feel differently. A handful of British families have spoken out against Megrahi's continued imprisonment.

Jim Swire's daughter, Flora, was killed aboard Flight 103. Dr. Swire has long had doubts about Megrahi's involvement in the bombing and has pushed for an independent inquiry to examine the events surrounding the night of the bombing.

"It's a very unfortunate position for me to be in, to be making life even harder for those relatives in the United States," Swire has said. "But I am determined to get to the truth."

For Wolfe and Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, there's no doubt of Megrahi's guilt. Their greatest fear is that Megrahi will be celebrated if he returns to Libya.

"If he goes home to Libya, we know he will be treated to a hero's welcome," Mr. Duggan says, pointing to Megrahi's co-defendant, who was acquitted of charges and whose return to Libya was regarded as a victory by the state-sponsored media. "The fact that this man is jail in is a very small measure of justice."

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