WASHINGTON — Scotland's prognosis that the Lockerbie bomber had three months to live was not justified, medical experts told Congress on Wednesday, and a senator questioned whether the process was deliberately manipulated to pave the way for the bomber's release from prison last year.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi served eight years of a life sentence for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed all 259 people on board, most of them Americans, and 11 people on the ground. Suffering from advanced prostate cancer, al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds in August 2009 by Scotland's government. He returned to Libya, outraging people on both sides of the Atlantic. He is still alive.
"The release on compassionate grounds was deeply, deeply flawed and perhaps even intentionally skewed to allow for al-Megrahi's release," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairing a Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
The panel is investigating whether the British-based oil company BP had sought his freedom to help get a $900 million exploration agreement with Libya off the ground. Senators have been rebuffed in their attempts to get outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward to testify.
The medical experts said that a man who had only three months to live wouldn't have been able to walk up and down stairs without assistance, as al-Megrahi did last year when boarding a plane for Libya and then disembarking to a hero's welcome.
Menendez said his investigative staffer uncovered conflicting accounts of al-Megrahi's treatment prior to his release. According to the senator, al-Megrahi stated last year that he had not received chemotherapy – and medical records released by Scotland didn't say he received that treatment. But Menendez said that a Scottish official, George Burgess, told his staffer that al-Megrahi started chemotherapy in July 2009.
"I'm not sure which version of the Scottish government's story to believe, but I do know one thing – the discrepancy raises a number of questions, including why the information was not forthcoming," he said.
Menendez also said that the prognosis was made by al-Megrahi's primary care physician, who didn't have the expertise to determine how advanced the cancer was.
The Scottish government rebutted both claims.
"The senator's staffer has got both these issues entirely wrong, and the Senate committee is misinformed – we wrote to the committee yesterday informing them of these errors when we became aware of them, and expressing our extreme disappointment," the government said in a statement.
The prognosis was made by Dr. Andrew Fraser, director of health and care of the Scottish Prison Service, according to the statement, which said that Fraser "is a professional of impeccable integrity." The government also said that al-Megrahi was not on chemotherapy at any point during his time in Scotland.
"Officials met Sen. Menendez's staffer as a courtesy, and we demand a full explanation from the committee for what has happened in a response to our letter as a matter of urgency," the statement said.
Menendez's office provided The Associated Press with the staffer's notes from his meeting with Scottish officials, including Burgess and Kevin Pringle, the spokesman for the first minister. The notes say that Burgess confirmed that Dr. Peter Kay, al-Megrahi's primary care physician, made the prognosis.
"I note that Pringle was very uncomfortable after Burgess made this statement and instead insisted that Dr. Fraser had made the prognosis," the staffer's notes say. "Burgess then became nervous and tried to retract what he had said." The notes also say, "Burgess confirmed that al-Megrahi received chemotherapy in July 2009. That is a first."
The question about chemotherapy is not an academic one: Dr. James Mohler, chairman of the Urology Department at the Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, N.Y., told the committee that someone undertaking new active treatments wouldn't have been given three months to live.
Menendez's office also provided e-mail exchanges with Scottish officials that show the Senate staffer vainly tried to arrange meetings with doctors who were involved with al-Megrahi's care.
Meanwhile, a State Department official told the committee that a review of government records found no evidence that BP sought al-Megrahi's release.
Nancy McEldowney, a principal deputy assistant secretary, told lawmakers that the State Department has "not identified any further materials, beyond publicly available statements and correspondence, concerning attempts by BP or other companies to influence matters" related to al-Megrahi's release.
BP has acknowledged that it had urged the British government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but stressed it didn't specify al-Megrahi's case.
McEldowney noted that in 1998, the U.S. and U.K. wrote a letter to the U.N. secretary general, outlining an agreement for al-Megrahi and another suspect, Amin Khalifa Fhimah, to be tried before a Scottish court established in the Netherlands. Al-Megrahi was convicted but Fhimah was acquitted. The letter stated, "If found guilty, the two accused will serve their sentence in the United Kingdom."
She said that back then, the U.S. sought binding assurances that would happen, but the British countered that they couldn't legally bind the hands of future governments.
"But it was our very clear understanding that we had a political commitment that Megrahi's transfer to Libya would not happen," she said. "We proceeded on the basis of the understanding that while at some point in the future it might be a theoretical possibility, in practice it would never happen."