TRIPOLI, Libya — The only man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 returned home to Libya to die after he was released from a Scottish prison Thursday, a decision that outraged some relatives of the 270 people killed when the jetliner blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, more than two decades ago.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the Scottish decision to free terminally ill Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was a mistake and said he should be under house arrest. Obama warned Libya not to give him a hero's welcome.
Despite the warning, at the military airport in Tripoli where al-Megrahi's plane touched down, thousands of youths were on hand to warmly greet him. He left the plane wearing a dark suit and a tie and accompanied by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. They immediately sped off in a convoy of all-white vehicles.
In Libya, al-Megrahi is seen as an innocent scapegoat the West used to turn this African nation into a pariah, and his return is a cause for celebration. There was a festive atmosphere with some wearing T-shirts with al-Megrahi's picture and waving Libyan and miniature blue-and-white Scottish flags. Libyan songs blared in the background.
"I think it's appalling, disgusting and so sickening I can hardly find words to describe it," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the attack. "This isn't about compassionate release. This is part of give-Gadhafi-what-he-wants-so-we-can-have-the-oil."
Months to live
But many in Libya view his homecoming as a moral victory for the African country and an end to a long-standing humiliation at the hands of the West. They say Libya was forced to surrender al-Megrahi to end years of crippling sanctions.
Moammar Gadhafi lobbied hard for the return of al-Megrahi, an issue which took on an added sense of urgency when al-Megrahi was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. He was recently given only months to live.
The 57-year-old former Libyan intelligence officer served only eight years of his life sentence.
The Times of London reported that Gadhafi's private jet had been sent to take al-Megrahi home.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of taking part in the bombing on Dec. 21, 1988, and sentenced to life in prison. The airliner exploded over Scotland and all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when it crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
He was sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years in a Scottish prison for Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. But a 2007 review of his case found grounds for an appeal of his conviction, and many in Britain believe he is innocent.
'Some scars can never fade'
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who announced the release, said although al-Megrahi had not shown compassion to his victims — many of whom were American college students flying home to New York for Christmas — MacAskill was motivated by Scottish values to show mercy.
"Some hurts can never heal, some scars can never fade," MacAskill said. "Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive ... However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."
He said he stood by al-Megrahi's conviction and the sentence for "the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed on U.K. soil."
He added that he had ruled out sending the bomber back to Libya under a prisoner-transfer agreement, saying the U.S. victims had been given assurances that al-Megrahi would serve out his sentence in Scotland. But he said that as a prisoner given less than three months to live by doctors, al-Megrahi was eligible for compassionate release.
But U.S. family members of Lockerbie victims expressed outrage.
"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. Her 20-year-old brother Richard Monetti was on board the doomed flight. "It's horrible. I don't show compassion for someone who showed no remorse."
"Something that I did not do'
As al-Megrahi's white van rolled down street outside Greenock Prison on his way to the airport in Glasgow, some men on the roadside made obscene gestures.
Al-Megrahi later appeared on the airport tarmac dressed in a white tracksuit, black shirt and white baseball cap. He covered his mouth with a white scarf as he slowly climbed the stairs up to an Airbus plane aided by a cane.
In a statement following his release, al-Megrahi stood by his insistence that he was wrongfully convicted. "I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear — all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do," he said.
He also said he believed the truth behind the Lockerbie bombing may now never be known.
"I had most to gain and nothing to lose about the whole truth coming out — until my diagnosis of cancer," he said, referring to an appeal against his conviction that he dropped in order to be freed. "To those victims' relatives who can bear to hear me say this, they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered."
Al-Megrahi's conviction was largely based on the testimony of a shopkeeper who identified him as having bought a man's shirt in his store in Malta. Scraps of the garment were later found wrapped around a timing device discovered in the wreckage of the airliner. Critics of al-Megrahi's conviction question the reliability of the store owner's evidence.
A letter published Thursday showed that Libya had invoked human rights concerns in appealing to Scotland for al-Megrahi's release.
Abdulati Alobidi, Libya's Secretary of European Affairs, said under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — a U.N. treaty — all those deprived of liberty must be "treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person."
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He renounced terrorism, dismantled Libya's secret nuclear program, accepted his government's responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families.
Western energy companies — including Britain's BP PLC — have moved into Libya in an effort to tap the country's vast oil and gas wealth.
Al-Megrahi was a well-known figure in the Scottish community near his prison, receiving regular treatment at the hospital and visited often by his wife and children, who lived in Scotland for several years.
Briton Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on Flight 103, welcomed the Libyan's release, saying many questions remained about what led to the bomb that exploded in the cargo hold.
"I think he should be able to go straight home to his family and spend his last days there," Swire told the BBC. "I don't believe for a moment this man was involved in the way he was found to be involved."
Among the Lockerbie victims was John Mulroy, the AP's director of international communication, who died along with five members of his family.
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