Edinburgh, Scotland: A Scottish court on Tuesday allowed the Lockerbie bomber to drop an appeal against his conviction — a step that could lead to the Libyan man's possible release or transfer to a prison in his homeland.
Libya wants Abdel Baset al-Megrahi sent home, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Scotland to keep him in prison to serve out his 27-year sentence. Seven US senators — including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry — also wrote to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill with a similar request.
Al-Megrahi, 57, was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988. The airliner — which was carrying mostly American passengers to New York — blew up as it flew over Scotland. All 259 people aboard and 11 more on the ground died when the aircraft crashed into the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
A judicial review of al-Megrahi's case two years ago raised serious questions about the evidence used to convict him, spurring his appeal. But people with pending appeals cannot be transferred to another country — a fact that prompted al-Megrahi's request for permission to abandon his appeal.
The Scottish court still has to hear a separate appeal by the government, which feels the bomber's 27-year minimum sentence is too short. A hearing on that is scheduled for September 8.
The lead judge, Arthur Hamilton, urged state prosecutors to decide "without undue delay" whether to continue with their appeal.
MacAskill has said he will decide within two weeks whether to release the terminally ill al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, transfer him to a Libyan prison, or keep him in a Scottish jail.
The prospect of al-Megrahi possibly being released has angered some of the victims' families, while other families were upset that halting the Libyan's appeal would stop further investigation into the bombing.
Many American families have called for him to remain in a Scottish jail. But relatives of some British victims want him to be released on compassionate grounds and to carry on with the appeal, which could have continued after al-Megrahi's death.
"The criminal inquiry is now ending in the worst possible way for the relatives and friends of those who died," said the Rev. John Mosey, whose daughter Helga died aboard Flight 103.
"We are left in limbo with a conviction, but now not the opportunity to hear for ourselves the evidence that convinced the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission that there was a possible miscarriage of justice.
"The travesty at this hearing is that by abandoning his appeal we the families will be robbed of the opportunity to find justice," he added.
Mosey said he was "85 percent sure" al-Megrahi was not guilty. The Libyan's lawyers have argued the attack was the result of an Iranian-financed Palestinian plot.
Margaret Scott, Al-Megrahi's lawyer, told the court Tuesday that her client has advanced prostate cancer and had been given only months to live.
"This has now reached the terminal phase and he is in severe pain and in great distress," she said.
Though judges agreed Tuesday to remove one barrier to the prisoner's possible release, they said other legal obstacles remain. Al-Megrahi would not be eligible to be transferred to a Libyan jail until the government appeal is heard.
Some British media had reported that MacAskill could free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Saturday. That would allow him to fly back to Libya a free man.
However, Scotland's government said Tuesday that no decision has yet been made.
First Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2009, 17:34