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Seriously Ill? Head for Libya

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Why Libya, you might ask? Very simple, actually.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi was convicted, in 2001, of 270 counts of murder for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in mid-air. Two-hundred-fifty-nine passengers and crew, 190 of them American, along with eleven Scots on the ground, were killed in the terrorist attack. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Scottish prison.

In August 2009, Megrahi was released on "compassionate" grounds by Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill.

Megrahi, the world was told, was suffering from fatal prostate cancer, had no more than three months to live according to an examining oncologist, Karol Sikora, and should be allowed to die at home.

Again, that was in August, Now, six months later, Megrahi is still alive and reportedly living in his suburban villa outside Tripoli, the nation's capital.

Well, I used to think that if I were told I only had three months left, I'd want to spend it listening to some of the most boring people I've ever met. They would ensure that the three months felt like eternity.

But scrap that idea. Instead, I'm heading for Libya. Clearly, medicine is far more advanced there than we all give it credit for. The Scots couldn't do anything for Megrahi other than close his file and send him packing, accompanied by none other than President Qadhafi's son, Saif, who couldn't hide his glee that he had pulled off this release. Meanwhile, miracle of miracles, Libyan doctors have already managed to double Megrahi's presumed life expectancy.

Of course, there's more to the story.

First, was the diagnosis of Megrahi's condition accurate?

Here's what a leading British paper reported the other day: "The Sunday Telegraph revealed last September that the Libyan government had paid for the medical evidence which helped Megrahi, 57, to be released. The Libyans had encouraged doctors to say he had only three months to live. The life expectancy of Megrahi was crucial because, under Scottish rules, prisoners can be freed on compassionate grounds only if they are considered to have this amount of time, or less, to live."

Dr. Sikora, one of the examining doctors, whose costs, believe it or not, were covered by Libya, is no stranger to controversy. Last year, the very same physician was disavowed by Imperial College of Science and Technology, after he claimed that he was affiliated with the London-based institution. The college rector said of Sikora, "This individual has been warned before by the college for making claims that he is employed by us, or associated with us."

Second, was the release driven by "compassion" or commerce?

Much as the Scottish justice minister and his supporters assert the former, there has been a cloud of suspicion surrounding the deal from the start. Most of it centers on British interest in Libyan oil. Lo and behold, a deal was signed with BP at just about the same time as the release, but we're all asked to believe the two are totally unrelated. Right!

Third, if it's all about "compassion," where was the compassion for the families of the 270 victims of Lockerbie?

As if their pain wasn't sufficiently acute these past twenty-two years, they had to witness the only person convicted in the attack being freed from prison; given a hero's welcome on his return to Libya, the very country that surely was involved in the terrorist act; and allowed to live out the rest of his days surrounded by family and friends.

Fourth, maybe, after all, I should think twice about medical care in Libya. It doesn't seem to apply to everyone.

Last May, just a few months before Megrahi was released, Fathi el-Jahmi, a courageous Libyan human rights activist, died in a Jordanian hospital. For more than five years, he had been held in a Libyan jail for his democratic views. His health declined under the brutal conditions of his incarceration, but Libyan medicine wasn't able to perform the "miracles" it did for Megrahi. Instead, Jahmi was sent to a Jordanian hospital, but it was too late and he died in Amman. Cynically, that allowed Libya "plausible deniability" for his death.

And fifth, come to think of it, you can never be quite sure what else might happen to you while in Libya.

Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor discovered that when they were falsely accused of deliberately infecting 400 Libyan children with HIV in the hospital where they were working. That, in turn, led to their imprisonment and torture for more than eight years. They were finally let go in a "sweetheart" deal where, in the guise of early release for which the Libyans expected praise, the country also profited handsomely from payments they received from the Europeans. I think a better word for what happened is extortion.

So, at the end of the day, I suspect I won't seek medical care in Libya if, heaven forbid, I get some bad news. Too iffy. And, I might add, I think I'll also skip any possible consultations with Dr. Sikora, whatever his CV does or does not say.

From beginning to end, this is just one of those stories that makes you wonder -- and worry -- about the state of the world. And, most of all, it is a slap in the face of the victims' families, for whom there was no compassion. Unlike Megrahi, they got no second chance to be reunited with their loved ones.