Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 11:47 UK

Bomber 'will die a convicted man'

Lockerbie memorial
US relatives of the Lockerbie victims want to see the conditions of the verdict upheld

By Glenn Campbell
Political Correspondent, BBC Scotland

It is not just the fate of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing that is in the hands of the Scottish justice secretary.

It is a curiosity of devolution that Kenny MacAskill is also in a position to decide whether or not to uphold the international agreement which brought the Libyan to court in the first place.

In 1998, the UK and US governments agreed Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi and his co-accused could stand trial under Scots law in the Netherlands under certain conditions.

In a letter to the UN secretary general, Britain and America made clear that "if found guilty, the two accused will serve their sentence in the United Kingdom".

It is that condition that US relatives of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing are determined to ensure is upheld.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and seven US senators have weighed in behind them to demand Megrahi "serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland".

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi
Megrahi stood trial under Scots law in the Netherlands

They believe the original agreement precludes prisoner transfer to Libyan custody - but what seems binding in Washington is clearly not regarded as legally binding in London.

The British Foreign Office said: "We do not assess there is any international legal obstacle to transfer", while stressing any decision was "exclusively for Scottish ministers".

The Scottish Government has never been keen on prisoner transfer from the moment it emerged Tony Blair had struck a deal on the issue with Colonel Gaddafi in the Libyan desert.

In April 2008, First Minister Alex Salmond said in an SNP press release that "anybody connected and convicted of the Lockerbie bombing should serve their sentences under Scottish jurisdiction."

He also promised to "uphold the international agreements" previously made.

Medical advice

To allow prisoner transfer now would look like an enormous climbdown for the SNP government.

It could not happen anyway while there are outstanding legal proceedings in Megrahi's case.

Although he has dropped his second appeal against conviction, the Crown's appeal for a tougher sentence has remained active.

That does not mean Megrahi, who is terminally ill with prostate cancer, will die in Scottish custody.

Lockerbie plane crash
A Crown appeal for a tougher sentence has remained active

The justice secretary could grant him compassionate release to spend his final days with his family.

The BBC has been told that the medical advice the minister received has suggested Mr al-Megrahi may have less than three months to live, which normally qualifies a prisoner for release on compassionate grounds.

This would still anger US relatives and politicians, but would not appear to breach the pre-trial agreement because as law professor Robert Black puts it, under compassionate release "sentence is served".

The final decision is the Scottish justice secretary's to make. He has cleared his diary to do so, probably this week.

Unless Kenny MacAskill caves in to international pressure, Megrahi could be back in Libya for Ramadan.

Despite always protesting his innocence, it is now clear he will die a convicted man, having served a fortnight in jail for each of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

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