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LONDON (Reuters) - Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, could be released from prison on compassionate grounds and returned to Libya, Scottish officials have indicated.
Following are some questions and answers about the Megrahi case, the debate that surrounds his 2001 conviction and subsequent appeals, and the implications his release could have for British-Libyan relations.
After a trial held in the Netherlands under Scottish law, Megrahi was found to have played a "prominent part in planning and in perpetrating" the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988. He was convicted of the murder of 270 people; the 259 people on board the jet, mostly Americans, and 11 people on the ground who were killed by falling debris. The guilty verdict was the unanimous decision of three Scottish judges. He was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum jail term of 27 years.
Lawyers for the Libyan say he was a senior airline executive in Libya and had nothing to do with the bombing. They say the evidence presented in court, which largely depended on the testimony of a shopkeeper in Malta, was inconclusive. Megrahi maintains his innocence. An appeal made in 2002 was unanimously rejected by a court of five judges. However, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed to reconsider the case and in June 2007 said that Megrahi could make a further appeal against his conviction. That appeal is ongoing in a Scottish court. Megrahi meanwhile remains jailed at Greenock prison in western Scotland where he is visited by his wife and family. Last year, doctors diagnosed him with advanced prostate cancer which his lawyer says is incurable. He is receiving treatment at a hospital in Scotland, but his lawyer says he could die at any time. While he wants to return home, Megrahi also wants his appeal to go ahead in the hope his conviction will be quashed.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been pushing for Megrahi's release for years. Megrahi is a member of an influential clan in Libya and they have pressed Gaddafi to do what he can to get Megrahi released. As well as finalizing a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Britain, which would allow Megrahi to serve out the rest of his sentence in Libya, Gaddafi recently pressed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, to push the case for Megrahi's compassionate release because of the cancer. Gaddafi, who has been steadily rehabilitated in the West in the past three or four years, since giving up his nuclear weapons program, may see Megrahi's early release as further reward for his international compliance. In return, Libya analysts believe Gaddafi might look more favorably on the prospect for British oil business in Libya.
The decision rests with Scotland's justice minister, Kenny MacAskill. In essence, MacAskill has three choices and is expected to make a decision in the coming days: compassionate release, a prisoner transfer to Libya, or leave him where he is.
If he releases Megrahi on compassionate grounds due to the cancer, the appeal working its way slowly through the Scottish courts would, in theory, continue. Some legal experts see that as a problem for Scotland, which would rather wash its hands of the Megrahi affair if he is released early. If the appeal continues and is ultimately upheld, questions would be asked about wrongful conviction, and about who then did carry out the bombing. If Megrahi is released early, some who follow the case suggest he could then drop the appeal, which would to some extent draw a line under immediate legal proceedings.
If MacAskill transfers Megrahi back to Libya under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement, the appeal would stop and Megrahi would in theory complete his sentence in Libya, although in practice that is highly unlikely; he would be at liberty with his family. The final option is to do nothing, leaving Megrahi in prison in Scotland with the appeal going ahead.
Victims' families are deeply divided. Many in Britain and some in the United States think Megrahi was wrongly convicted, believing the evidence was insufficient, and want to see the appeal process completed.
Others, mostly in the United States, believe he is guilty and insist he should serve out his term in a Scottish prison.
If he is released on compassionate grounds, there is the possibility that some relatives will launch further legal proceedings in Scotland, calling for another judicial review. If Megrahi's appeal goes ahead and is successful, there will also be recriminations, calls for further review and a clamor for investigators to re-examine the evidence once again and track down who was responsible for the bombing.
Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Jon Hemming