Scotland Frees Ailing Lockerbie Bomber

Scotland's justice minister has ordered the release of Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the man held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1998. The bombing killed 270 people, and the U.S. government says it regrets the man's release.

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The one man convicted and sentenced to life for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in Scotland has returned home to Libya. He was allowed to leave prison on compassionate grounds because he's dying of cancer. Two hundred seventy people died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Lockerbie, the Libyan's release has come under strong criticism.

ROB GIFFORD: Fifty-seven-year-old Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi left the Scottish jail a free man today. Compassionate release is an established feature of the British judicial system when a prisoner is near to death. But al-Megrahi had served just eight years of a life sentence to planting the bomb on the Pan Am flight. Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill made the announcement at a lunchtime news conference.

Mr. KENNY MACASKILL (Justice Secretary, Scotland): Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated. For these reasons, it is my decision that Mr. Abdel Basset al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.

GIFFORD: The move has angered many in the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior U.S. politicians had very bluntly told the Scottish government the U.S. was against the release of al-Megrahi. Today, President Obama added his voice.

President BARACK OBAMA: We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this. And we thought it was a mistake.

GIFFORD: The president said the U.S. has also been in touch with the Libyan government to try to make sure there were no public celebrations to greet al-Megrahi's return. There have been accusations denied by the British government that the release has been part of a deal in exchange for British access to Libyan oil. Many of the family members of American victims such as Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband died on Flight 103, believe as much. She and others are furious with the Scottish government's decision today.

Ms. STEPHANIE BERNSTEIN: He, as a convicted prisoner, should have served the rest of his sentence in jail. If we were talking about Bin Laden or one of Bin Laden's henchmen in that jail, would you and I be having this discussion? I don't think so.

GIFFORD: The Scottish and wider British reaction to the release, however, even among the relatives of those killed has been somewhat different. There are plenty of people who also feel that al-Megrahi should've died in a Scottish jail. But there were many, like long-term Lockerbie residents, George McCannell(ph) and Roger Grant(ph), out today on the streets of the town, not far from the memorial to those who died, who believe that al-Megrahi was just a scapegoat.

Mr. GEORGE MCCANNELL: I think he's innocent. Well, I think the wrong man's been convicted. I think the - a lot of the people from here thinks that, too. I think he should be released.

Mr. ROGER GRANT: My take is that there were others involved and those others haven't been brought to justice. Therefore, full justice hasn't been - seemed to be done. And in my view, Megrahi should be sent back for - on compassionate grounds, yeah.

GIFFORD: Abdel Baset al-Megrahi arrived back in the Libyan capital Tripoli this evening to be greeted by thousands of his flag-waving countrymen.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Lockerbie, Scotland.

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