Man convicted in Pan Am Jetliner Bombing Will Return to Libya to Die
LONDON, Aug. 20 -- The Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was released on compassionate grounds by Scottish authorities Thursday, allowing him to return to Tripoli to die with hi family
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent who is terminally ill, was convicted in 2001 for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The plane exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, 189 of them American.Images of Megrahi climbing the steps to an aircraft at the Glasgow airport, walking stooped and with a stick but otherwise unaided, were broadcast around the world Thursday morning. By early afternoon, he arrived home in Tripoli, where, the Associated Press reported, thousands turned out to greet him at the airport.
Speaking at the Scottish government's ministerial headquarters in Edinburgh, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said that humanity was a defining characteristic of the Scottish people, and that "our belief dictates that justice be served but mercy be shown."
He said that Megrahi should "be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die."
In defending his decision, MacAskill said that the former agent "did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."
He said at the news conference that he had rejected the application to transfer him to a prison in Libya, and that after seeking medical advice, he estimated that Megrahi had about three months left to live.
The release comes amid pressure from the U.S. government to keep him behind bars in Scotland.
In a radio interview Thursday, President Obama called Megrahi's release "a mistake."
"We're now in contact with the Libyan government, and want to make sure that if in fact this transfer has taken place, that he's not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest." Obama said. "We've also obviously been in contact with the families of the Pan Am victims, and indicated to them that we don't think this was appropriate."
Previously, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that it would be "absolutely wrong" to release him. Her views were echoed by seven senators, including Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who wrote to MacAskill earlier this week. MacAskill also said that he had spoken to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Clinton also released a statement Thursday calling the decision deeply disappointing. Holder released a statement of his own, saying: "There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans. Megrahi did not show and has not shown compassion for innocent human life, and as we communicated to the Scottish authorities and the UK government, it continues to be our position that he should have been required to serve the entire sentence handed down for his crimes."
Many of the families of the American victims have vociferously objected to his release.
Brian Flynn, a New York City resident whose brother J.P. Flynn died in the crash, said in an interview he was "very disappointed. I was hoping that based on the gravity of the crime, it wouldn't go through." He added: "It is like the U.S. catching the September 11th hijacker and sending him back to Bin Laden," he said.
Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am 103 Inc., said that he was worried now that Megrahi would get "a hero's welcome in Libya. That would be incredibly hurtful for American families."
On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb ripped through a jetliner flying from London to New York, killing all 259 on board. Another 11 people on the ground were killed from the crashing debris. Megrahi, 57, was convicted in a Scottish court held in the Netherlands and sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years of a life sentence.
MacAskill was keen to stress that this was his decision, and his alone. Since 2000, the Scottish government has received 30 applications from prisoners to be released on compassionate grounds -- 24 have been accepted.
Megrahi has advanced prostate cancer. He is being flown home to Libya today where he is expected to meet his wife and five children.