The Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people when PanAm flight 103 was blown up over the Scottish town in 1988, is expected to be released from prison on compassionate grounds next week.
Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, 57, who is suffering from prostate cancer, is just eight years into a life sentence – with an original minimum term of 27 years – for his part in the attack. But reports last night suggested that he could be released on grounds of compassion as early as next week.
The news comes in the aftermath of two formal requests by the Libyan government for his early release. Last week Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, met Megrahi in Greenock prison and said he had been shown "compelling" new medical evidence that suggested the Libyan's prostate cancer had significantly worsened over the past few weeks and that he was in the final stages of life.
Another prisoner transfer request was made by Libya to the UK last May, less than a week after a treaty allowing prisoners to be transferred between the two countries was ratified.
In considering his decision it is understood that that the Scottish minister has consulted the views of others, including relatives of some of the 270 victims. But there is likely to be muted ambivalence at news of his release as many of the victim's relatives still harbour concerns over the trial process by which Megrahi was convicted. Yesterday Martin Cadman, whose son lost his life on the flight, described the trial as a "farce" and added: "I believe he's not guilty."
There is also speculation that the speed of the transfer was to allow Megrahi to be home in time for Ramadan, the annual Muslim fast.
Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter was killed in the atrocity, said there had been a "lack of justice" for those killed in the tragedy. Last night she told Newsnight she was "baffled" by much of the evidence in the trial that led to Megrahi's conviction.
Asked whether his release would be a coup for Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on the 40th anniversary of his rise to power, she said: "That may well be the case." She added: "There has been a lack of justice for the 270 people who died on and below Flight 103."
But the news of Megrahi's release is unlikely to be greeted with such compassion by all victims relatives, particularly in the US, where it is still considered one of the most deadly attacks on America since 11 September 2001.
Last night, government officials refused to confirm reports of Megrahi's release. Downing Street referred the matter to the Scottish Government and judiciary, while a spokesman for the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said: "No decision has been taken, either on the application for compassionate release or the application under the prisoner transfer agreement."
David Ben Ari, an adviser to the Lockerbie relatives, last night told the BBC: "Mr MacAskill, being a member of the SNP and a very serious person, has not been treating any of this lightly. He has canvassed a wide range of views from the British relatives, the American relatives, from the lawyers, even indeed going to Greenock Prison to meet with Megrahi personally which I have to say was pretty unique in the history of law, and there is a degree of urgency.
"Although there has been no confirmed evidence as to a deterioration of the prisoner's condition it is believed that he is not a very well man and as happened last week with Ronnie Biggs I think on this occasion, Mr MacAskill has been moved to grant compassionate release if it is confirmed."
Terror in the skies: PanAm flight 103
*21 December 1988
PanAm Flight 103 from London to New York explodes over Lockerbie.
Libyans Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah are indicted on 270 counts of murder.
Libya confirms it would accept a trial in a neutral country.
Megrahi is found guilty of murder but Mr Fhimah is freed.
Megrahi lodges his first appeal against his conviction.
Megrahi spends his first night at a prison in Glasgow.
Megrahi is told he must serve at least 27 years in jail.
Megrahi begins a challenge against the 27-year punishment period of his jail term.
Megrahi's lawyers confirm he has been diagnosed with "advanced stage" prostate cancer.
Mr Megrahi asks to be released from jail on compassionate grounds due to his illness.Reuse content