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Scotland rules on Lockerbie bomber today

SCOTLAND announces today whether it will release a Libyan sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie that killed 270 people, the majority of them Americans.

British media reports said former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who is terminally ill with cancer, was expected to be sent back to Libya on compassionate grounds.

Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill will make a statement on Megrahi at 1200 GMT. "He has reached his (decision)," the Scottish government, which has devolved powers from Britain on justice and other policies, said in a statement.

The government has come under pressure from Washington to keep Megrahi in jail, but MacAskill has the power to free him early via a prisoner transfer deal or on compassionate grounds.

Megrahi, 57, was convicted in 2001 of the murder of all 259 people on board a Pan Am Boeing 747 and 11 killed on the ground when the aircraft exploded in mid-air above the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

The United States and the relatives of many of the 189 American victims oppose Megrahi's early release and say he should serve his full life sentence in prison.

"It is absolutely wrong to release someone who has been imprisoned based on the evidence about his involvement in such a horrendous crime," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters.

But the families of many of the Britons killed in the bombing believe he should be allowed to go home to die. Some also say the evidence presented at his trial was not strong enough to find him guilty.


If Megrahi is released on compassionate grounds, he is likely to be warmly welcomed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has moved closer to the Western mainstream since dropping his nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

The Megrahi case has become a millstone for the Scottish government as it balances a series of competing interests, among them the fact that British oil companies are trying to do more business in Libya and hope Megrahi's release might open doors.

Britain's Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy appeared to rebuke the government in Edinburgh for failing to make an announcement on Megrahi a week after media reports said he would be freed.

"They should get on and make the decision because it is dragging on and it is becoming a little bit embarrassing," Murphy said in televised comments to reporters.

A Scottish government spokesman said yesterday: "We have a strong justice system in Scotland and people can be assured that the justice secretary's decisions have been reached on the basis of clear evidence and on no other factors."

Britain's Times newspaper said Gaddafi would send his private jet to Scotland if Megrahi was released and fly him home in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Megrahi's wife Aisha al-Megrahi was quoted in the Times as saying her husband "doesn't have any idea if he will or will not be released".

"I spoke to him today (Wednesday) but he did not know when he will be released," she said in a telephone interview with the newspaper from her home in Tripoli.

MacAskill has been been considering two requests from Megrahi to be released early, on compassionate grounds or under a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya.

Megrahi can be transferred only when all active criminal proceedings have ended. While Scotland's High Court accepted his request to drop his second appeal on Tuesday, the process has yet to be finalised. A further hearing is due in three weeks.

Scotland's judicial authorities must also drop their own appeal against Megrahi's original sentence, which they saw as too lenient.


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