LONDON (Reuters) - The father of a British woman killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing accused the government on Tuesday of trying to encourage a Libyan found guilty of the attack to abort an appeal against his conviction.
Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed along with 269 others when a Pan Am airliner blew up over Lockerbie, told Reuters the government was seeking to hasten a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya which could allow the convict to return home if he drops his appeal.
Libyan Abdel Basset al-Megrahi was convicted under Scottish law in 2001 and given a life sentence for bombing the airliner as it flew from London to New York on December 18, 1988, killing all 259 people on board, including 189 Americans. Eleven residents of the town of Lockerbie were killed by falling wreckage.
Megrahi’s lawyers said late last year they hoped to open a second appeal against his conviction on April 28.
But Swire accused Justice Secretary Jack Straw, whose department will oversee ratification of the PTA, of going to “extraordinary” lengths to ensure it is ratified before the appeal starts in a bid to ensure it is dropped.
“(His action) seems designed to make it possible for Megrahi’s appeal to be aborted,” he said, adding that the appeal would have been a key opportunity for fresh evidence in the case to be examined in public.
A government source told Reuters at the weekend the PTA, which would pave the way for an application for Megrahi’s transfer home, may be ratified before the appeal is due to start. “It is being discussed at the moment,” the source said.
Tony Kelly, Megrahi’s lawyer, told Reuters on Tuesday he had no plans to drop the appeal. “It is going ahead as things stand,” he said, refusing to comment further.
Megrahi is suffering from advanced prostate cancer and last year lost a bid to be given bail on humanitarian grounds and be allowed to join his family at a home in Scotland pending his appeal, which is expected to last three months.
Relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing were sent an email by Scottish prosecutors last week alerting them to the impending PTA ratification, and saying it could “take place around the end of April.”
A copy of the email obtained by Reuters cites comments by Straw who said in March that “a delay beyond early April is likely to lead to serious questions on the part of Libya in regards to our willingness to conclude.”
It also shows Scottish prosecutors informing victims’ relatives that the PTA may prompt Megrahi to drop his appeal.
“Following ratification the appellant (Megrahi) can only apply for transfer under the terms of this treaty if there are no live criminal proceedings against him, so he would require to abandon his appeal against conviction in order to become eligible for this process,” it says.
In 2003 Libya agreed to pay about $2.7 billion (1.84 billion pounds) to the families of the victims of the bombing in a move that helped Tripoli’s international rehabilitation after it was long regarded by the West as a pariah state.
A spokesman for Straw’s justice department said: “There is no date set for ratification.”
Swire, who has been convinced since Megrahi’s original trial in 2001 that the Libyan was wrongly convicted, is concerned that if the appeal is dropped, crucial new evidence suggesting the bomb could have been planted on the plane at Heathrow, may never be properly examined.
“The objective of the appeal, if course, is to see if the verdict should be overturned,” he said. “There is evidence that has not been heard in public, and I think it is very important that it should be.”
Editing by Charles Dick