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Lockerbie bomber could live 'for years'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 16 August 2010

Nearly a year after the return of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to Libya on compassionate grounds, prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby tells Channel 4 News new treatments mean he could be alive for years.

Lockerbie bomber in Tripoli after his release from prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds in 2009

Almost a year on from al-Megrahi's release from a Scottish prison in August 2009, it has emerged that a drug which could have helped treat his cancer was not taken into account in discussions over his release.

The standard chemotherapy treatment was not mentioned in the report which led to al-Megrahi's release, when it was claimed he only had three months to live as a result of his prostate cancer.

Experts said the treatment could have kept him alive in jail for 18 months or more. It is believed al-Megrahi is now receiving the treatment in Tripoli.

Prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby, director of the Prostate Centre London - who said in 2009 that releasing al-Megrahi could lead to ministers having 'egg on their faces' because of the difficulty of predicting life expectancies for prostate cancer sufferers - today told Channel 4 News: "It was a big mistake to let him out on the premise that he would be dead in three months. It was always likely to be embarrassingly wrong."

Al-Megrahi was released by Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill in the belief that his cancer meant the Libyan had less than three months to live, the limit for release on compassionate grounds.

The release of al-Megrahi, convicted of killing 270 people by blowing up an American plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, caused a major international row.

US senators have suggested the release was part of a deal with BP, which wanted drilling concessions in Libya – something the government has repeatedly denied.

The row has intensified as Friday marks the anniversary of al-Megrahi's release.

The Libyan was released after the director of health and care of the Scottish Prison service, Dr Andrew Fraser, suggested in a medical report that the cancer was resistant to "any treatment", and claimed he would die in three months.

The report originally suggested that no experts would be willing to give a three month estimate, but it then said that al-Megrahi's condition has "declined significantly over the last week (period 26 July - 3 August). The clinical assessment, therefore, is that a three month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate for this patient."

However, a standard chemotherapy medicine called Taxotere, the brand name for docetaxel – which is approved in the UK – was not taken into consideration.

Al-Megrahi could not have received the treatment at Greenock prison, where he was being held, but it could have been administered at the local Inverclyde Royal hospital.

It is unclear why the oversight regarding the treatment occurred. Al-Megrahi's application for compassionate release referred to the possiblity of chemotherapy to treat his disease.

Professor Kirby said new treatments for prostate cancer, including the chemotherapy al-Megrahi is having, meant patients could live for much longer now than in the past.

"We know that patients can survive 18, 24, 36 months longer as a result of these treatments," he said. "And maybe the new treatments coming in will extend life expectancy even longer, so the longer Mr al-Megrahi lives, the more embarrassing it is that he has been released from jail.

"He should have received chemotherapy in jail, not in Libya, I think."

Although he was reluctant to give a prediction on how long al-Megrahi could live for the reasons above, Professor Kirby said the bomber could survive "for years".

A spokesperson for the Scottish justice secretary told Channel 4 News: "Dr Fraser made all the relevant decisions - it was his report and no one else's report."

A Scottish Prisons Service spokesman said: "Our role is to compile advice…You can only assess the information that you have in front of you...What was asked for [by the Scottish justice secretary] was an opinion based on the circumstances that pertained at the time."

The four doctors who were the most closely involved in the bomber’s treatment for prostate cancer also revealed over the weekend that they were not consulted over his release last year.

All of the medical professionals linked to the case, contacted by Channel 4 News, declined to comment.

Friday this week will mark the anniversary of al-Megrahi's release.

Reports suggest he will mark the date with a party attended by the son of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, Saif, as well as prayers for those in the UK who were responsible for his release, including former prime minister Gordon Brown. 

'Compassionate release' explained

Scottish ministers have the power to release prisoners on "compassionate grounds", similar to the medical parole system in other countries.

Outlined in law in section three of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993, the process requires ministers to be "satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment."

The act does not give details of what the grounds are, but it is understood to include:

- prisoners suffering with a terminal illness, where death is likely to occur soon. Life expectancy of less than three months "may be considered an appropriate period", according to government guidance, but there are no fixed time limits

- prisoners who are severely incapacitated

- situations where continued imprisonment would endanger or shorten his or her life expectancy.

Since 2000, Scottish ministers have released 26 people under the system, including al-Megrahi. Most died soon after their release.

Seven prisoners have been turned down since 2000, although one was later released after his condition worsened.

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