Scots Walk Diplomatic Tightrope in Lockerbie Case

The Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing is expected to drop his appeal Tuesday, a step that could lead to his rapid release or a transfer back to a prison in his homeland.

The decision whether to free or transfer Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi has thrust Scotland's left-of-center government - normally focused on domestic issues - into a rare international spotlight. The U.S. government is pressing for no leniency.

Al-Megrahi, the only person to be convicted of Britain's deadliest terrorist attack, has long protested his innocence. But if Scotland's three-judge Court of Appeal accepts his legal retreat, he will become eligible for transfer to a Libyan prison under terms of a British-Libyan agreement ratified in April.

The wild card in the situation is al-Megrahi's advanced prostate cancer - and the potential that Scotland's government could elect to set him free on compassionate grounds.

Around the same time that the judges hear Tuesday from al-Megrahi's legal team, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill is expected to meet Cabinet colleagues in the northern city of Aberdeen. A potential compassionate parole for the Libyan is reportedly on the agenda.

Scotland's government says only that a decision, one way or the other, will be made by the end of the month. The British broadcasters BBC and Sky News have reported that al-Megrahi's freedom could come within days.

Terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, over Scotland as it was carrying mostly American passengers to New York. All 259 people aboard and 11 more on the ground died when the aircraft crashed into the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

A judicial review of al-Megrahi's case two years ago raised serious questions about the evidence used to convict him, spurring his appeal.

If it is abandoned, MacAskill would be legally free to order al-Megrahi's transfer to a Libyan jail.

Or, as BBC and Sky reported last week was likely, MacAskill could free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Saturday. That would allow him to fly back to Libya a free man.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has specifically asked MacAskill to ensure that al-Megrahi stays in prison.

MacAskill's aides insist that no decision has been made. They deny reports that MacAskill has changed plans to free al-Megrahi this week under pressure from Clinton's lobbying.

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

Meanwhile, The Financial Times reported Monday that a top British politician discussed al-Megrahi's case with Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's son on the Greek island of Corfu earlier this month.

Saif al-Islam Gadhafi was a fellow guest at the luxury villa of the wealthy Rothschild family when Gadhafi stayed there. The Times and other British media cited a spokesman for Peter Mandelson, Britain's secretary of state of business, as calling the meeting a coincidence and describing the pair's conversation as "fleeting."

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