Nightly News   |  August 20, 2009

Libya gives Lockerbie bomber warm welcome

Aug. 20: Despite warnings from the U.S. to keep the return home of convicted bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi low-key, thousands were on hand in Libya Thursday to greet the terminally ill Megrahi upon his arrival. NBC's Dawna Friesen reports.

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CURRY: Good evening. In for Brian Williams , I'm Ann Curry .

ANN CURRY, anchor: One of the world's most notorious terrorist , convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 270 people, most of them Americans , is free tonight and home in Libya . A private plane sent by Libya 's president, Muamar Qadafi , carried Abdel Bset Ali al - Megrahi to a hero's welcome in Tripoli . Scotland announced this morning it was releasing him for compassionate reasons, and then steeled itself for outrage, which came. NBC 's Dawna Friesen now joins us from outside the prison where Ali al Megrahi was held in Greenock , Scotland .

Dawna: Good evening, Ann. He spent just eight years of a life sentence here in this Scottish prison. And tonight Abdel Baset al - Megrahi left here a free man. It was a decision Scotland 's justice secretary said he knew many people would disagree with, and he was right. Abdel Baset al - Megrahi , dressed in white , on his final uneasy steps to freedom . Terminally ill with prostate cancer , he was released on compassionate grounds by Scotland 's justice minister, a decision met with outrage at the highest levels.

DAWNA FRIESEN reporting: We have been in contact with the Scottish government indicating that we objected to this and we thought it was a mistake.

President BARACK OBAMA: Two-hundred-and-seventy people died in the Lockerbie bombing , 189 of them Americans . After a massive investigation and lengthy trial, Megrahi was the only person convicted. Jack and Kathleen Flynn lost their 21-year-old son, John Patrick , in the bombing.

FRIESEN: The word compassion should never be used in the same sentence with Mr. Megrahi .

Ms. KATHLEEN FLYNN: Bert Ammerman lost his brother Tom .

FRIESEN: It's as bad as the first day when we found out my brother was on the flight.

Mr. BERT AMMERMAN: Scotland 's justice secretary says he knows the bereaved will never forget, let alone forgive. But Scottish law allows terminally ill prisoners to be shown compassion, and that's what he did with Megrahi .

FRIESEN: No compassion was shown by him to them, but that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him.

Mr. KENNY MACASKILL (Scottish Justice Secretary): The justice secretary consulted doctors who say Megrahi is not responding to treatment and has less than three months to live.

FRIESEN: Mr. al - Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power .

Mr. MACASKILL: After boarding his flight home, Megrahi , who has always maintained he's innocent and was appealing his conviction, issued a statement. "To those

FRIESEN: they continue to have my sincere sympathy. This horrible ordeal is not ended by my return to Libya . It may never end for me until I die." There are those who support Megrahi 's release. Jim Swire lost his daughter Flora on the flight.

victims' relatives who can bear to hear me say this: I think there should always be a place in any nation's behavior for some compassion.

Mr. JIM SWIRE: An innocent dying man or mass murderer set free, Megrahi 's release leaves many doubts about whether justice has been served. But when he arrived home in Tripoli tonight , wearing a dark suit, hundreds of cheering supporters were waiting for him. It was expected Megrahi would be celebrated on his return to Libya . Most people there don't think he is guilty, think he was a scapegoat. And few seem to be heeding the State Department 's warning that his return be kept low key , that he not be made into a hero. Ann :

FRIESEN: All right. Dawna Friesen tonight . Dawna , thank you for your reporting on this story.