Lockerbie: Megrahi to drop appeal

Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi's solicitors, Taylor & Kelly, announced on 14 August 2009 that their client wished to drop his as yet undecided appeal against conviction of the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, which killed 270 people.

The matter will come before the High Court of Justiciary on 18 August.  The court, it will be recalled, is preparing its judgement on an aspect of the appeal, which may be handed down in September.

If the court allows the appeal to be dropped, that will open up the possibility of Megrahi's release from Greenock prison to serve the remainder of his sentence in a Libyan prison under a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya.

Earlier, on 12 August, the BBC reported that Megrahi, who is dying from prostate cancer, might be released from prison on compassionate grounds because his death was likely within three months.  This led to a furious reaction from some of the relatives of US victims of the bombing, although relatives of UK victims appeared more open to the possibility.  The Scottish Government later vehemently denied that compassionate release was on its agenda.  Megrahi could have continued his appeal if released on compassionate grounds.

The US Government in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has apparently made clear in response to Megrahi dropping his appeal that it favours his serving out his sentence in Scotland.

The final decision on Megrahi's release will be taken by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who controversially visited Megrahi in prison on 4 August as well as meeting with UK and US relatives (the latter by way of video conference).  Although choreography is hotly denied by the Scottish Government, it is hard not to see any relation between the Minister's prison visit, the entry into the public domain of the compassionate release possibility as a testing of the waters (especially in the US), Megrahi's decision to drop the appeal, and the possibility then arising under the prison transfer agreement.  All that would avoid the inconvenient ventilation of all the evidence for months and years to come, keep Megrahi in prison albeit in Libya, and avoid possible embarrassment for police, prosecutors, judges and others.  But it looks as though the US Government is not on board; and with domestic battles about healthcare reform meaning that unpopularity through seeming soft on terrorism cannot be afforded, it may not be persuadable.

As commentators have noted, all this suddenly means that the Scottish Government has to take a decision that will have repercussions internationally, not least in terms of the UK's relations with the USA and Libya.  Devolution is not just a matter of Britain's domestic politics after all, and the reality of Scotland as a legal jurisdiction as well as a devolved region of the UK is very apparent.  Add to this the moral complexities in Megrahi's case, and one may think that it will be an interesting weekend in St Andrew's House.