The Big Question: Should the Lockerbie bomber be freed from jail, and are we nearer the truth?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

It was reported yesterday that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted of carrying out the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in which 270 people were killed, is likely to be released on compassionate grounds.

Al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, is serving a life sentence with a minimum term of 27 years after he was found guilty in 2001. He is being held in Greenock Prison, near Glasgow.

How bad a terrorist atrocity was Lockerbie?

A bomb was planted on a plane flying from London to New York. When it went off above the Scottish town of Lockerbie, it killed all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 people on the ground. Investigators said some passengers would have been alive when the aircraft crashed into the street. The subsequent police investigation was the largest in Scottish history and became a murder inquiry when evidence of a bomb was found.

Who has decided to release al-Megrahi?

According to lawyers for al-Megrahi, the Scottish Government has decided he should be released. The Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, took the surprising decision to visit him in jail and is awaiting an independent medical report on his condition. The report has been completed and there are strong signs these compassionate grounds are likely to be accepted. Al-Megrahi is expected to be returned to Libya withing weeks. There is also an outstanding request from Libya that he be returned under a deal to repatriate British and Libyan prisoners.

Have the Scots agreed?

No. In fact, there is a strong chance that a US-led public backlash may well trigger a change of heart. A spokesman for Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, said reports that al-Megrahi was to be released were "complete speculation". He said: "No decision has been taken, either on the application for compassionate release or the application under the prisoner transfer agreement and so it is entirely speculation."

What do the victims' relatives think?

There has been a very mixed response. Crudely, it can be said that feelings are split between American families' desire for retribution and the British families' willingness to see him released. The Americans are convinced of al-Megrahi's guilt and can see no reason why he should be shown any compassion. British relatives are less sure of the evidence and so less opposed to the compassionate grounds for sending the dying man home to his wife and five children.

Who says what?

Susan Cohen, an American whose only child Theodora, 20, was killed, said releasing al-Megrahi would be a "disgrace". "It makes me sick, and if there is a compassionate release then I think that is vile," she added. "It just shows the power of oil money counts for more than justice. There have been so many attempts to let him off. It has to do with money and power and giving Gaddafi what he wants." Others, however, have been more forgiving. Martin Cadman, a Briton who lost his son Bill in the bombing, said Americans convinced of al-Megrahi's guilt and sceptical about his illness should "get real". He also described the original trial as a "farce".

What was the evidence against al-Megrahi?

Baby clothes found in a Samsonite suitcase believed to have contained the bomb were traced to a Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, who became a key prosecution witness at the trial in the Netherlands. Mr Gauci testified that he sold the clothes to a man of Libyan appearance, whom he later identified as Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA). However, a later report providing information not available during the original trial stated that Mr Gauci had seen a picture of al-Megrahi in a magazine which connected al-Megrahi to the bombing, a fact which could have clouded his description. Al-Megrahi has always maintained his innocence.

Was anyone else implicated in the plot?

Another Libyan, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, the LAA station manager at Malta's Luqa Airport, was also accused of plotting the attack. United Nations sanctions against Libya and protracted negotiations with the country's leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, secured the handover of both men in April 1999 to Scottish police at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, which was chosen as a neutral venue. The early part of the Lockerbie investigation pointed strongly to a Syrian-Palestinian involvement. Some of families argue that the reasons for pinning responsibility on a single Libyan rather than extending the investigation were political rather than judicial. They also claim that the prosecution case is by no means as strong as was suggested in court, and that the crucial evidence of the Maltese shop owner who identified al-Megrahi is open to doubt.

What happened at the trial?

Al-Megrahi was convicted of murder on 31 January 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment. His co-accused, Fhimah, was cleared. Al-Megrahi lost his appeal against conviction on 14 March 2002. On 23 September 2003, his lawyers applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) to have his case referred back to the Court of Criminal Appeal for a fresh appeal against conviction. The application to the SCCRC followed the publication of two reports in February 2001 and March 2002 by Hans Köchler, who had been an international observer at Camp Zeist, appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Mr Köchler described the decisions of the trial and appeal courts as a "spectacular miscarriage of justice". Mr Köchler also issued a series of statements in 2003, 2005, and 2007 calling for an independent international inquiry into the case and accusing the West of "double standards in criminal justice" in relation to the Lockerbie trial on the one hand and the trial of Bulgarian doctors in Libya on the other.

Could anyone else have been responsible?

According to a CIA analysis shortly after the attack, several groups were quick to claim responsibility in telephone calls in the US and European countries. A male caller claimed that a group called the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution had destroyed the plane in retaliation for the US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 in the Persian Gulf the previous July. Another caller claiming to represent the Islamic Jihad organisation told ABC News in New York that the group had planted the bomb to commemorate Christmas. Even the Ulster Defence League allegedly tried to claim responsibility. The CIA memo said it considered "the claims from the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution as the most credible one received so far" but added the crucial caveat: "We cannot assign responsibility for this tragedy to any terrorist group at this time. We anticipate that, as often happens, many groups will seek to claim credit."

Does al-Megrahi deserve to be released on compassionate grounds?

Yes...

*There are serious doubts about his guilt and he is a very ill man who is not expected to live very long

*Libya has agreed to pay victims' relatives £1.7bn in compensation

*Under a deal between Britain and Libya, their respective prisoners are allowed to serve their sentences in their home countries

No...

*He is the only person to have been convicted of the worst atrocity ever committed on British soil

*Some of the American relatives of the victims question the seriousness of his illness

*His release gives the impression that Libya can buy the freedom of its terrorists

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