EDINBURGH, Scotland — Scottish officials said Thursday they were considering early release for the Lockerbie bomber — igniting debate between victims' relatives in the United States and Britain over whether he should be allowed to return home to Libya.
British media reports say Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi will soon be freed on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill with cancer. The possibility of an imminent release has reignited the fierce debate about whether justice has been done for victims of the attack that killed 270 people — most of them Americans.
The Scottish government dismissed as speculation the reports by Sky News and BBC television that he would be released next week and said Scotland's justice minister had yet to review all case information before deciding whether to release Megrahi. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington had not been made aware of any final decision.
"We have made our views clear to the U.K. government, to other authorities, that we believe that he should spend the rest of his time in jail," he said.
Neither the BBC nor Sky News cited sources for their reports. A decision had been expected by the end of August.
The man in charge of deciding Megrahi's fate insisted he was still considering his options.
"Clearly, he is terminally ill, and there are other factors," Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill told the BBC. "But I have made no decision as yet."
Megrahi, a former Libyan secret service agent, is the sole person convicted for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He was arrested in 1991 in Libya, held under house arrest until handed over in 1998 and convicted in 2001 by a special Scottish court held at Kamp van Zeist in the Netherlands. His co-accused, Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted, but Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison.
He unsuccessfully appealed immediately after the trial. But a second appeal is currently under way in Edinburgh after a review by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007 raised serious concerns over the evidence used to secure the conviction.
Those concerns have convinced many British families that the full truth about the bombings has yet to be uncovered, and many in the U.K. had been looking forward to Megrahi's second appeal to find out more about the atrocity.
"Other people and other countries were involved in this," said the Rev. John Mosey, from Worcestershire, England, who lost his daughter Helga, 19. "We should show him some Christian compassion."
Jim Swire, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Flora in the blast and serves as a spokesman for many of the British victims, said "everything points to a miscarriage of justice" and said he would be "delighted" if Megrahi were sent home.
The possibility that Megrahi could leave his Scottish prison exposed long-standing trans-Atlantic disagreements between victims' families. Some U.S. relatives of the victims expressed outrage over the possibility that Megrahi would be freed early.
"I have a tough time being compassionate for a guy who killed 270 people," said Peter Sullivan of Akron, Ohio. His best friend, Mike Doyle, was among the victims.
Sullivan, 51, said there was no reason Megrahi could not be treated in custody. "He ought to die in prison. Period."
Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the attack, said the idea that Megrahi could be freed was a nightmare.
"This is total, pure, ugly appeasement of a terrorist dictator and a monster," Cohen said, arguing that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi would feel vindicated if the convicted bomber could return to Libya.
"Megrahi would be a star," she said, "and we will be left here in ashes and suffering."
Megrahi's fate is of particular importance because his trial and conviction led to a massive shift in Libya's relationship with the West.
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He renounced terrorism and voluntarily dismantled Libya's secret program to develop nuclear weapons — earning commitments from Britain and the United States to work together to contain the threat of international terrorism.