LONDON // There is growing unease in Britain - and mounting anger in the US - because the Lockerbie bomber is still alive in his native Libya, when he was expected to have succumbed to his illness by now. Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi was freed after serving eight years of a life sentence in Scotland after the Scottish government ruled that his terminal prostate cancer meant he had no more than three months to live: the only legal reason for freeing someone on compassionate grounds.
That was almost eight months ago and, on Thursday, al Megrahi celebrated his 58th birthday with family and friends at his villa in the suburbs of Tripoli. One British newspaper reported yesterday that a diplomat in Libya said the man found responsible for planting the bomb that killed 270 people when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie in 1988, had made a "remarkable recovery". Saif Qadafi, the Libyan leader's son and possible successor, was quoted in the Asharq AlAwsat newspaper as saying that, after being flown home to a hero's welcome in Libya, al Megrahi "was soon in better health and in a good condition".
Al Megrahi was freed last August by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary and a member of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP). Mr MacAskill has consistently denied suggestions that the Scottish government decided to release al Megrahi because his detention was proving a stumbling block to negotiations between the UK government and Libya over lucrative oil contracts and trade deals.
President Barack Obama and senior members of his administration joined a chorus of protests from the families of American victims over the decision to free the former Libyan intelligence agent, who was meant to have served a minimum of 27 years in prison. The fact that al Megrahi did not die within the three months, as was expected under the prognosis of his illness, is now fuelling the controversy.
Susan Cohen, a New Jersey mother who lost her 20-year-old daughter, Theo, in the bombing, said: "It was a shocking decision to free him. "This man had a birthday party, but my daughter will never have another one. She only had 20 birthdays. He should have remained in jail." Iain Gray, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, added: "This entire episode has damaged Scotland's reputation and unfortunately reflects the SNP's attitude to the victims of crime.
"The longer Megrahi lives his life in comfort in Libya raises even more questions about the decision. "We have asked some pretty serious questions about the medical evidence and it does now look as if the basis of the medical evidence wasn't particularly sound. "I felt the decision to release him was wrong for a whole number of reasons but largely because Kenny MacAskill was required by the Scottish justice system not only ... to take account of how long al Megrahi was considered to have to live, but was also required to take account of the severity of the crime and the sentence which had been passed."
Mr Gray accepts that a prognosis of life expectancy for a prostate cancer sufferer is never certain but points out the decision to free al Megrahi was made on the basis that his condition was untreatable. In fact, the bomber underwent a course of chemotherapy on his return to Libya, which he completed in December. A cancer expert in London said yesterday that, in most circumstances, this treatment would give a patient up to a year of life and, in exceptional cases, up to two years.
The exact nature of al Megrahi's illness, however, is not known. Last month, his lawyers blocked an attempt by a member of the Scottish parliament to have his medical records published under the UK's Freedom of Information Act. George Foulkes, a Labour Party member of the parliament, had demanded that an update on al Megrahi's condition be published by East Renfrewshire Council, which, under the conditions of al Megrahi's release, gets monthly updates on his health.
"If the medical evidence backed up the decision to release Megrahi, then there should be no reason why it can't be published," said Mr Foulkes. "The lawyers' refusal and the government's refusal can only mean that they both have something to hide. It is a matter of public importance." A spokesman for the council said that lawyers for the Libyan had told the council that "Mr Megrahi does not consent to the release of his personal data", which was protected under the Data Protection Act.