Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, who was serving a 27-year jail term for murdering 270 people, flew home to Libya in August last year after being freed on compassionate release.
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He also told parliament that Scottish Prison Service (SPS) guidance considered “a life expectancy of less than three months” as the threshold for compassionate grounds. The statements were widely interpreted as Megrahi having three months to live.
MacAskill acknowledged that the 57-year-old might die sooner or later than three months, but did not say how probable the latter outcome was.
However, a key Government official has now revealed Megrahi stood a 50% chance of living longer than three months. George Burgess, the Government’s former deputy director of criminal law and licensing, who advised MacAskill, said the three-month figure was a “median survival time”, rather than the upper limit of Megrahi’s life expectancy.
Median survival time is defined as the time at which half the patients with a disease are expected to be alive and half expected to be dead. In other words, Megrahi had an even money chance of living longer. The news prompted Labour to claim MacAskill might as well have tossed a coin.
Richard Baker, Labour’s justice spokesman, said: “It appears that the three-month prognosis was little more than a shot in the dark. The more we find about this case the more clear it is that the SNP came clean and published all of the medical evidence now.”
The admission appears in the Scottish Government’s own record of a meeting last month with an aide to US Senator Robert Menendez, who recently staged a Senate inquiry into whether Megrahi’s release was connected to UK oil interests in Libya, and to those of BP in particular.
Asked by Menendez’s staff member about the reliability of the three-month prognosis, Kevin Pringle, the First Minister’s senior special adviser, told him: “The point is that it was an estimate.”
Mr Burgess then added: “The prognosis represents a median survival time - by definition some patients would survive less time, some more.”
The prognosis was given by Dr Andrew Fraser, the SPS’s director of health and care. Fraser never examined Megrahi, but consulted reports from four cancer and urology consultants, none of whom was willing to give a prognosis, and the GP at Greenock jail, who said Megrahi’s condition had deteriorated. The compassionate release appraisal was the first Fraser had made at the SPS.
Until Megrahi’s case, the procedure in around 60 previous cases had been for the primary medical officer – typically the prison GP – to prepare a report for the Governor and ministers.
Dr Fraser’s report was a novelty both for the system and for the doctor, yet it was the sole medical assessment used by MacAskill to authorise Megrahi’s release.
Dr Fraser is not an expert in cancer, but in public health and drug addiction.
Megrahi is the only person to be jailed for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, 1998.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The justice secretary based his decision on the published reports and recommendations of the Parole Board for Scotland, the prison governor, and the SPS director of health and care, Dr Andrew Fraser, which clearly concluded that ‘a three-month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate for this patient’ – and Mr MacAskill was clear in his statement when he said of Al Megrahi that ‘he may die sooner – he may live longer’.”
A spokesman for the SPS said: “Dr Fraser did not personally examine Mr Megrahi. He based his recommendation on the expert advice available from those who had carried out examinations.”