Lockerbie bomber’s fate hangs in the balance

The Lockerbie bomber was set on Tuesday to formally apply to drop his appeal, a move which could open the way for his transfer back to Libya 21 years after the atrocity.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi is the only person to be convicted of murdering 270 people when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the skies over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. He was jailed for at least 27 years.

A court in Edinburgh is expected to decide whether to accept an application from his lawyers to abandon his claim against conviction.

The procedure — in theory a formality, after the lawyers announced on Friday their intention to drop the appeal — comes as Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill weighs whether to allow Megrahi to return to die in his homeland.

The minister is mulling two options: either to let the former Libyan agent transfer from a Scottish jail to a Libyan prison — a process which can only go ahead once his appeal is dropped — or to release him on compassionate grounds.

Media reports have suggested Megrahi (57), who is dying of prostate cancer, would be released this week on compassionate grounds in time for the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The Times newspaper, citing unnamed senior sources, however, said on Monday that the Scottish government appeared to have buckled under pressure from Washington and abandoned plans to release him this week.

The issue sparked a political row as Scottish opposition parties slammed the government’s handling of the matter and called for Parliament to be recalled to debate the case.

But officials told the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday the minister would make his decision “sooner rather than later”, and was making it his “clear priority over the next few days”.

MacAskill is expected to meet with Cabinet colleagues in the northern city of Aberdeen on Tuesday.

The United States has made it clear it wants Megrahi to stay behind bars until he dies; reports have indicated he may only have a few months to live.

At the same time Libya — whose ties with the West have thawed since it renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and agreed to compensate victims’ relatives — has warned of serious economic fallout if he is not released.

Libya has the largest proven oil reserves of any African country, much of it still untapped, and British firms including BP and Shell have signed major exploration deals there in recent years, which could in theory be under threat.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government has insisted that the final decision rests with Scotland.

The move has dismayed some who believe Megrahi was wrongly convicted over Britain’s worst ever terror attack and that there are more facts which need to emerge in the case.

But relatives of those who died are split on whether Megrahi should be set free.

Whatever the outcome, Lockerbie residents told Agence France-Presse the atrocity continued to throw a shadow over their town.

“It affects you, even though it was 21 years ago. Ever since it happened there’s been this big dark cloud over Lockerbie,” said Stefan McCormick. — AFP

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