Why Lockerbie bomber is likely to be released

The Libyan intelligence agent convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 drew closer to release from a British jail on Tuesday when a procedural hurdle was removed.

Alastair Grant/AP
Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in a Scottish court in 2001 of murder in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland is being held in Greenock Prison in Greenock, Scotland.

This week, Britain came within a whisker of releasing on "compassionate" grounds an ailing Libyan intelligence agent who was convicted for planting the bomb that killed 270 people on Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

The British press reported that the release was headed off by furious US lobbying. Until 9/11, the bombing – which killed 180 Americans – was the deadliest terror attack on US civilians. But speculation is still strong that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the quietly spoken agent sentenced to life in prison for Britain's deadliest ever terror attack, could be headed home soon to spend his last days with his family. Mr. Megrahi is reported to be diagnosed with cancer.

On Tuesday, a Scottish court allowed Megrahi to drop an ongoing appeal, something that was an obstacle to his possible early release. Now, most British observers expect he'll soon be sent home, where he is expected to receive a hero's welcome.

The debate over releasing Megrahi has reopened old wounds for the families of victims and created a rare cross-Atlantic spat, with the Obama Administration staunchly opposed to either a release of Megrahi or his transfer to Libyan custody, something Scotland Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is also considering.

But while British courts release terminally-ill convicted murderers far more frequently than American ones, many in Britain are now speculating that other considerations are at play. Some believe he was unjustly imprisoned, and "compassionate release" is a dodge to avoid owning up to the error. Others say it's simply a question of money.

"One person whose shoes I would not want to be in is Kenny MacAskill. This really is a nasty can of worms," says George Joffe, a Libya expert at the Center of International Studies at England's Cambridge University.

Some are pointing to the heated competition by Western governments and firms to exploit Libya's relatively untapped oil and gas resources. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has in recent years renounced ties to international terrorism and terminated what he said was a nuclear weapons program to bring his country in from the cold. Mr. Qaddafi allowed for Megrahi to be extradited to stand trial after years of stonewalling in 1999 to get out from under United Nation's sanctions. Megrahi was sentenced by a panel of Scottish judges at an extraordinary trial in Holland in 2001.

Now, the British energy giant BP is among international firms vying to scour 21,000 square miles of desert and coastline for untapped oil in a country which already possesses 42 billion barrels of proven oil reserves – one of Africa's largest.

The oil race is on 

"There is a race on," says Mr. Joffe. "And it has been made clear to the British that if [Megrahi] is not released then there could be very adverse consequences. It has been made clear, I would assume, at the very top level."

"No one in Libya believes he was justly imprisoned," says Joffe. He points out that many ordinary Libyans regard Megrahi, a member of one of the country's most prominent tribes, as having been a scapegoat for the regime.

Some Scottish politicians have denounced Megrahi's predicted release. Paul McBride, a leading Scottish lawyer and adviser to the opposition Conservative Party, told The Times of London: "In America if you murder someone you go to jail and die there if necessary. Why should we let this man out, particularly now that he has dropped his appeal, therefore acknowledging he is a mass murderer?"

But there are others – even members of victims families – who say they doubt Megrahi is guilty at all.

They point to a catalogue of alleged inconsistencies and omissions from his 2001 trial which some say should have led the finger of blame for the bombing being directed at other players, notably Iran, originally suspected of carrying out the attack in revenge for the USS Vincennes' downing of Iran Air Flight 655 earlier in 1988, which killed 290 people.

Indeed, a report in Britain's Sunday Times at the weekend claimed that cables from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency blaming Iran would have been produced by Megrahi's legal team at an appeal, if it had gone ahead.

Family doubt

Such theories weigh on the minds of Britons such as Barrie Berkley, whose son Alastair was killed in the attack.

"We understand that the American families are convinced of his guilt and there is nothing more to be said, but that is not our position," says Mr Berkley. "Perhaps the difference is that the British families had one or two people at the trial at all times. We don't know whether he is guilty or not, and all we can say is that the evidence does not convince us. With the press here, we have probably also been more exposed to the issues."

Megrahi's release could come about through one of two applications being considered by Mr. MacAskill.

One is an application to release him on "compassionate grounds" because of advanced prostate cancer. The other, from the government of Libya, would allow him to serve out the remainder of his sentence there.

Clare Connelly, a lawyer for the Lockerbie Trial Briefing Unit at the University of Glasgow, says the release of prisoners on "compassionate grounds" is far from unprecedented.

Last year, nine prisoners were freed on that basis in Britain, and since 2000, Scottish ministers have considered 30 such applications on medical grounds – 23 of which have been granted.

She adds: "In political terms, things have radically changed since the Lockerbie bombing. There is a new enemy and Libya has been deemed not to be a threat to the West. However, it's interesting that Kenny MacAskill should be going out of his way to state that economic and political issues would have no impact on a decision whether or not to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds. We have to take his word for it."

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