A Libyan man convicted of murdering 270 people by blowing up a passenger jet could live for several more years, a leading cancer specialist said — two years after the terminally ill bomber was freed on compassionate grounds because he was close to death.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released from a Scottish jail and flown back to Libya on Aug. 20, 2009, two years ago Saturday, after prison doctors estimated he had only three months to live.
His survival has made him a propaganda asset for embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — and an embarrassment for British authorities, who are facing calls to return al-Megrahi to prison if Gadhafi's regime falls.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of killing 270 people, most of them American, when New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988.
Scottish authorities have come under attack from around the world for the decision to release him on compassionate grounds after he had served eight years of a 27-year sentence.
At the time, medical experts advising the Scottish prison service said he was close to death. But Prof. Roger Kirby, a London prostate cancer specialist, said 59-year-old al-Megrahi is likely taking a cutting-edge hormone treatment and "could live much longer, for several more years because of this drug."
'They got it wrong'
Kirby, a consultant urologist at the Prostate Cancer Center in London, said doctors in Scotland would have been unaware of the new hormone-based therapy abiraterone, which was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is still not available in Europe.
"I remember seeing the shots of him boarding the airplane and coming off in Tripoli and he looked very ill, he was definitely in trouble," Kirby said. "The mistake they made was putting a definite time frame of how long it was going to be, the prognosis of three months or less. They got it wrong.
"He has long outlived the speculative three-month prognosis, and it appears he may continue to do so for a while yet. I strongly suspect that this drug has been central to that."
Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, is the only person convicted over the Lockerbie bombing, Britain's worst terrorist attack.
His release infuriated the families of many Lockerbie victims, who suspected Britain's ulterior motive was to improve relations with oil-rich Libya. Some relatives, however, believe al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted and that evidence points to Iranian-backed Palestinian militants as the perpetrators.
American politicians and British leaders have condemned the decision by Scotland's semiautonomous government to free the convicted bomber.
When Gadhafi's regime showed TV pictures of al-Megrahi at a political rally in Tripoli on July 26, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was "a further reminder that a great mistake was made when he was released."
But Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said he had no regrets. He said he continued to back prison medical staff, who gave the three-month prognosis, and Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill, who made the decision to release al-Megrahi.
Salmond said the prognosis was based on the best evidence available, "and no one doubted that this was made on a professional judgment."
"It is fundamentally difficult to estimate the life expectancy of someone with terminal cancer," he said.
With Libyan anti-government forces gaining ground in recent days in their six-month civil war against Gadhafi's Tripoli-based regime, calls have emerged for al-Megrahi to be re-imprisoned if Gadhafi is overthrown.
George Foulkes, a Labour Party member of Britain's House of Lords, said this week that al-Megrahi should be sent back to Britain by a post-Gadhafi government, and there have also been calls from American politicians for the bomber to be extradited to the United States.
Guma El-Gamaty, the British organizer for Libya's opposition, said last month that decision would have to wait "an elected democratic government in Libya."
Until that time, he said, "we are not in a position to give that commitment."
The British government said it was powerless to intervene.
"Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish court under Scottish law," a Foreign Office spokesman said, on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
"He could be returned under the terms of his release but this is matter for the relevant judicial authorities and it is not something that the British government can interfere with," he added.
Officials in Scotland tasked with overseeing al-Megrahi's parole conditions said they monitored him by regular video link conferences — and expected to continue to do so.
"We have been with him regularly and recently and he has never breached his parole," said George Barber, a spokesman for East Renfrewshire Council near Glasgow.
"Our contact with him is direct and not through any third party or the Libyan government, so we are operating on the basis that the arrangement will continue regardless of what happens in Libya."