Scottish Judiciary Committee Could Decide on Lockerbie Release Tuesday

Scotland's judiciary will make a decision Tuesday that could affect whether convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi is released from prison, a move for which Libyan authorities are lobbying.

Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill was scheduled to meet cabinet colleagues from Scotland's devolved government Tuesday morning in Aberdeen. The meeting will come as judges in the Scottish capital decide whether to accept the terminally ill Libyan's application to drop the appeal of his conviction in the 1998 atrocity, in which 270 people died. most of them Americans.

Both developments are potentially important: If al-Megrahi successfully withdraws his appeal, he then becomes eligible for transfer to a Libyan prison under the terms of a prison transfer agreement ratified in April. MacAskill, meanwhile, is deciding whether to release al-Megrahi, who is terminally ill, on compassionate grounds. Although a spokeswoman for Scotland's government said the decision would be made before the end of the month, the BBC reported that it could come within days.

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Al-Megrahi is the only man to be convicted for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. However a judicial review of his case two years ago raised serious questions about the evidence used to convict him and an appeal is under way. If the appeal is dropped, MacAskill could release al-Megrahi into Libyan custody. The convict could be transferred to a Libyan jail as soon as the paperwork was signed.

But British broadcasters BBC and Sky television reported last week, without citing sources, that the Scottish government planned to free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds before Ramadan begins Saturday because he is dying of prostate cancer. If such a decision were made, he could be on a plane home a free man within hours.

The United States opposes both options, and the decision whether to release al-Megrahi has thrust Scotland's devolved government, which usually only handles domestic issues, into the international spotlight.

The government insists no decision has yet been made. A spokesman for MacAskill denied that the Scottish government had changed its plans to release him this week after pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has asked MacAskill to ensure that al-Megrahi remain in prison.

"We are aware of the U.S. viewpoint on this as we have consulted with the government and the American families of victims," said the spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.