Cancer expert consulted in Lockerbie bomber case raises questions over medical advice

By David Stringer, AP
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cancer expert questions Lockerbie bomber case

LONDON — A cancer expert who said Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi had only three months to live before his release from prison was quoted Sunday as saying he should have been more cautious about the prisoner’s chances of survival.

Al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds from a Scottish prison in August 2009, and allowed to return home to Libya, where he continues to be treated for prostate cancer.

The Libyan is the only person to have been jailed over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 above the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 259 people — mostly Americans — onboard and 11 more on the ground. He was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison.

Al-Megrahi was freed by Scotland’s government following advice from medical experts and a prison doctor. At the time of his release, al-Megrahi was not expected to survive for more than three months.

Three other experts provided an opinion for the Libyan government on al-Megrahi’s condition. While those assessments were shared with Scottish authorities, officials insist those opinions were not taken into account when deciding to release the bomber.

“If I could go back in time, I would have probably been more vague and tried to emphasize the statistical chances and not hard fact,” Prof. Karol Sikora, one of the experts who provided an assessment for Libya, was quoted as telling Britain’s Observer newspaper on Sunday.

Last week, four U.S. Democratic senators — Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey — sent a letter to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond asking that al-Megrahi’s full medical records be disclosed.

“Independent examination of Mr. al-Megrahi’s complete medical record is necessary in order to understand the circumstances surrounding his compassionate release,” the senators wrote. “A more complete medical record may help us understand exactly what Mr. al-Megrahi’s treatment options were and thereby help clarify questions about his prognosis.”

Annabel Goldie, a Conservative Party lawmaker in Scotland’s Parliament, said she agrees that the medical advice which prompted al-Megrahi’s release should be disclosed in full.

“We’ve never seen that medical evidence. We now know from the prison doctor that the cancer experts were not absolute in their view that al-Megrahi only had three months to live, so there is a lot of confusion here,” she said.

Currently, the only publicly available document is a report by the Scottish Prison Service’s medical chief, Andrew Fraser, which summarizes the notes of four specialists. The report described the three-month prognosis for al-Megrahi as “reasonable,” but confirmed that none of those consulted was willing to rule out that al-Megrahi might live for longer.

“It’s not like in the films when the oncologist says, ‘I’m sorry you have three months to live.’ There’s a huge spectrum for every clinical situation. When I was asked, ‘Is he likely to die in three months?’, my opinion was that he was,” Sikora told the newspaper. “If you look at the survival curve, there’s about a 60 percent chance of someone being dead in three months, but that doesn’t mean he will die in three months.”

Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Fraser both previously declined a request to attend a planned U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the case.

Sikora insisted that medical experts gave an honest assessment of al-Megrahi’s chances of survival, and were not pressured to reach certain conclusions. MacAskill has strongly denied allegations that oil giant BP pressured Scotland to free al-Megrahi — so it could win access to Libyan oil reserves.

Former chief executive of BP John Browne, who stepped down in 2007, said Saturday he held two meetings with Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi but had never discussed issues around the release of prisoners.

BP has acknowledged that it lobbied the U.K. government as Britain and Libya were negotiating a prisoner transfer agreement — known as a PTA — in autumn 2007, but said it had not raised the case of al-Megrahi.

“The PTA happened after I left the company. I went to see Col. Gadhafi twice and I think I moved things forward, but there was no discussion about the PTA and no agreement for exploration made at that time,” Browne said, speaking Saturday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Browne said one of the victims of the bombing was a friend, and claimed he could have boarded the plane himself. “Flight 103 means a lot to me because I nearly got on that plane and I lost a good friend and colleague Michael Pescatore who was a passenger on the plane,” he said.

Sikora said he believed a panel of four or five independent experts should have reviewed al-Megrahi’s condition, rather than the work be handled by Scotland’s government.

He also responded to accusations that doctors should bear some blame for mistakenly assessing that al-Megrahi would likely die soon after his release. “What I find difficult is the idea I took the key and let him out. I provided an opinion, others provided an opinion, and someone else let him out. That decision of compassionate release is nothing to do with me,” Sikora was quoted as saying.

Associated Press Writer Ben McConville in Edinburgh, Scotland, contributed to this report

will not be displayed