Lockerbie bomber returns to Libya

Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi has arrived in Tripoli to a hero's welcome after he was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.
Police and investigators inspect the remains of the flight deck of Pan Am Flight 103 in a field in Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988. ((Associated Press))
Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi has arrived in Libya to a hero's welcome after he was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.

He arrived Thursday evening at a military airport on the outskirts of Tripoli, where thousands of Libyan youths greeted him along with a military band. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, al-Megrahi left the airport with the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a convoy of all-white vehicles.

Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill had announced the decision to release al-Megrahi on Thursday morning, saying it was based on Scottish law that entitles a prisoner to be considered for compassionate release if his or her death is believed to be imminent.

Al-Megrahi, 57, who was sentenced to life in prison, is terminally ill with prostate cancer.

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi leaves a police van at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland on his way to Libya, after he was released on compassionate grounds on Thursday. ((Danny Lawson/Pool/Associated Press))
"Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power," MacAskill said. "It is one that no court in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."

Al-Megrahi was transferred from Greenock Prison to the airport in Glasgow on Thursday and boarded a jet provided by Gadhafi.

Al-Megrahi walked slowly up the steps, leaning on a cane to reach the Airbus operated by Libyan airline Afriqiyah.

3-month prognosis

The former Libyan secret service agent is the only person ever convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988.

All 259 people aboard the London-to-New York flight and 11 people on the ground were killed, including two Canadians. Most of the passengers were Americans.

Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of putting a suitcase full of explosives onto a plane in Malta. The suitcase was transferred to the doomed flight in London via Frankfurt.

'Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown.'—Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill

Multiple medical experts have determined that his health has been rapidly deteriorating since his September 2008 diagnosis, and he was given a three-month prognosis in an Aug. 10 report, MacAskill said.

The justice minister said he recognized that the decision was of personal significance to the families of the victims and that many people would not agree with the release.

"Mr. al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion,… but that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days," he said.

"Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown."

U.S. 'deeply regrets' release

Many U.S. families of the victims condemned the release.

Al-Megrahi heads into a Libyan court in 1992. ((Jockel Fink/Associated Press))
"I don't understand how the Scots can show compassion. It's an utter insult and utterly disgusting," said Kara Weipz of Mount Laurel, N.J., whose brother Richard Monetti, 20, was on board Pan Am Flight 103. "It's horrible. I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. government "deeply regrets" Scotland's decision and had repeatedly asked that al-Megrahi be kept in custody. U.S. President Barack Obama said he should be placed under house arrest.

The Scottish government had been under renewed pressure from the U.S. government and some of the victims' relatives not to grant clemency to al-Megrahi.

MacAskill had also considered a separate request from the Libyan government to have al-Megrahi transferred back to the country.

He said that request had been rejected because it was clear the U.S. government and American families had been under the impression that an agreement had been reached in pre-trial negotiations to ensure that al-Meghari's sentence would be served in Scotland.

MacAskill said Al-Megrahi would be a security threat if he was relocated within Scotland.

Appeal dropped

Al-Megrahi's return was a landmark event in Libya, where many people see him as an innocent victim scapegoated by the West.

Al-Megrahi has maintained his innocence and was allowed to appeal his conviction in 2007 following a Scottish judicial panel ruling that he may have suffered a "miscarriage of justice" in his 2001 trial.

Al-Megrahi's lawyers argued that British and American officials ignored witness statements and interfered with evidence suggesting the bombing was an Iranian-financed plot carried out by Palestinians.

Scotland's Court of Appeal allowed Al-Megrahi to drop his appeal of the conviction on Tuesday.

People with pending legal appeals cannot be transferred to another country under British law.

With files from The Associated Press