By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 21, 2009
LONDON, Aug. 20 -- A former Libyan secret service agent convicted in the Lockerbie bombing returned home to Tripoli on Thursday, greeted by cheering crowds after being freed from a Scottish prison -- a release that President Obama called "a mistake."
Scottish authorities released Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who is dying from prostate cancer, for humanitarian reasons after he served eight years of a life sentence. Megrahi is the only person convicted of a crime in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, 189 of them American.
As Megrahi, 57, was on his flight to Libya, Obama told a radio interviewer: "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. 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."
When he arrived at an airport near Tripoli, Megrahi was met by hundreds of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags. He wore a dark suit and walked slowly with a stick.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who made the decision to release Megrahi, said at a news conference in Edinburgh that humanity was a defining characteristic of the Scottish people and that "our belief dictates that justice be served but mercy be shown."
In defending his decision, MacAskill said that after seeking medical advice, he determined that Megrahi had about three months left to live, considered appropriate for release on compassionate grounds in Scotland. Since 2000, the Scottish government has received 30 applications for release on compassionate grounds; 24 have been approved.
MacAskill said that Megrahi "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."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and John Brennan, the president's senior counterterrorism adviser, had pressed the Scottish and British governments in recent months to keep Megrahi in prison. Clinton brought up her concerns with MacAskill and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, officials said.
In a statement Thursday, Holder said, "There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals."
Seven U.S. senators had written to MacAskill this week, urging that Megrahi remain in prison in Scotland. On Thursday, one of them, John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said Megrahi's release "turned the word 'compassion' on its head. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was unforgivable."
Many of the victims' family members said the release reopened their wounds, decades after the explosion.
Glenn Johnson, whose daughter Beth Ann was studying in London and returning home for Christmas when she died, said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania that he was "just devastated. How can a person who killed 270 people, who had no compassion for them, be given compassion? It is another tragedy families have to suffer."
Brian Flynn, a New York City resident whose brother J.P. Flynn died in the crash, said, "You just don't let convicted terrorists go."
Megrahi continued to maintain his innocence Thursday. In a statement issued by his attorneys, he said: "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.
"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."
On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb ripped through the plane flying from London to New York, killing all 259 onboard. Eleven people on the ground were killed by debris. Megrahi was convicted in a Scottish court set up in the Netherlands and was sentenced to serve a minimum of 27 years of a life sentence.
Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said Megrahi is a respectable figure in Libya. "Most people there believe he is innocent and will be glad he is back."
The decision to free Megrahi has divided some of the relatives of the victims. Although many Americans expressed dismay, many Britons said that it was the right decision and that they were unconvinced of his guilt.
Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora on the flight, said in a phone interview from Wales: "I am unhappy if I make life difficult for fellow people in America in their grieving, but unfortunately neither Libya or Megrahi has anything to do with it. I welcome his transfer home."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.