Five Questions About the Lockerbie Bomber's Release

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Ismail Zetouny / Reuters

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi sits in a wheelchair in his hospital room in Tripoli on Sept. 9, 2009

One year after the Lockerbie bomber flew home to Libya from his jail cell in Scotland, there is still deep suspicion in Washington over why he was freed after serving just seven years of a 27-year sentence for blowing up a Pan Am airliner over Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people, most of them American. As U.S. and British politicians, along with the biggest beneficiary of Britain's detente with Libya — BP — argue over the motivation behind Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi's release, Scotland's government insists it freed him last Aug. 20 on compassionate grounds, after doctors concluded that he would likely die of prostate cancer within three months. One problem: As Libyans celebrate the anniversary of Al-Megrahi's release Friday, he is still alive, ensconced in the sprawling yellow house in suburban Tripoli built for him before his homecoming.

With continued anger in the U.S. over the release, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on the issue once Congress resumes next month. But with Scottish and British officials and BP executives saying they don't intend to testify, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey on Monday appealed for BP employees — and Scottish and British officials — to leak information, promising them anonymity. If any whistle-blowers do come forward, Menendez might want to zero in on these five questions:

Where's the document proving a BP-Libya deal?
Libya's government ratified a $900-million oil-exploration contract with BP within weeks of Al-Megrahi's release, after stalling on the sign-off for two years — a fact at the crux of the U.S. furor. British officials say the timing was coincidental and that there was no deal to free Al-Megrahi in order to smooth the way for huge British contracts. But there are clues to the contrary, including Britain's then-Foreign Minister David Miliband admitting to the BBC that "we did not want [Al-Megrahi] to die in prison" for fear that British interests would be "damaged." Still missing, however, is written proof of a freedom-for-business deal. Those likely to know if any such document exists include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; ousted BP chief executive Tony Hayward; and Sir Mark Allen, a former British intelligence officer who helped negotiate Blair's agreements with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before becoming BP's go-to man for Libyan operations. But they aren't talking.

Did Scotland distort Al-Megrahi's medical report?
Scottish prison officials say their decision to release Al-Megrahi was based on predictions by oncologists that he would die soon; Scotland's compassion laws allow prisoners to go home if they have just a few months left to live. But on Aug. 16 news reports quoted several oncologists who had seen Al-Megrahi in prison denying that they had given him only three months to live. Scottish officials have refused to release their full medical report, but the censored version published online reveals that Al-Megrahi's imminent death was hardly a sure thing. In the fall of 2008 — albeit before Al-Megrahi's condition deteriorated — oncologists gave the prisoner's chances for survival "an informal mid-estimate of 18-24 months." How that prognosis whittled down to three months remains a mystery.

Did Scottish officials persuade Al-Megrahi to drop his legal appeal before going home?
With no explanation, Al-Megrahi dropped his appeal against his conviction shortly before he was freed. Some relatives of Lockerbie victims suspect Scottish officials might have persuaded Al-Megrahi to end his appeal — possibly in exchange for a smoother release — perhaps to avoid raising potentially embarrassing questions about the original trial, held in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands in 2001 and 2002. "Most of us [relatives of Lockerbie victims] here feel that there is something extremely murky, which the U.S. and British governments don't want to come out," John Mosey, a British pastor whose 19-year-old daughter died aboard the Pan Am plane, tells TIME. Jim Swire, whose 24-year-old daughter was killed in the Lockerbie attack, says Scotland's Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill did something "very unwise. He went to see Al-Megrahi in prison ... then Al-Megrahi dropped his appeal, and then MacAskill decided to send him home." Swire, who has fought a long campaign to reveal the truth behind the Lockerbie attack, says that suggests possible persuasion. But, so far, there's no proof of any.

Could Al-Megrahi have been innocent?
U.S. Senators are not aiming for a retrial, but they might focus on the controversies surrounding Al-Megrahi's imprisonment. Swire, Mosey, and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's envoy to the Lockerbie trial, Austrian law professor Hans Köchler, are among those who have long argued that the trial leading to Al-Megrahi's conviction was deeply flawed. In 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, a publicly funded body that investigates possible wrongful convictions, issued an 800-page report listing several grounds for an appeal by Al-Megrahi, including inconsistencies in the testimony of the key prosecution witness and the existence of CIA documents about the Swiss-made timer for the bomb, which defense lawyers had not seen. So far, the full report has not been released publicly.

How is Al-Megrahi still alive?
This is hardly something on which the U.S. Senate will focus, but at least one survivor of the Lockerbie victims is curious as to how Libya's doctors have kept Al-Megrahi alive in Tripoli. Swire, a British medical doctor, says he studied survival rates for cancer patients with conditions similar to Al-Megrahi's and concluded that only about 10% of them could live this long. "He was regarded as hopeless," he says. Al-Megrahi's survival suggests that Libya might have used start-of-the-art medicine on him. "If there is some new technology which has been offered to him it would be good to know," he says. "It is very, very encouraging in terms of medicine." Although surely not so encouraging for those who, predicting his quick demise, sent him home one year ago.