Lockerbie bomber ‘sent home to Libya to die’
Tripoli, August 21, 2009
A former Libyan agent jailed for life for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing arrived home on Thursday after Scottish authorities released him on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, believed to have less than three months to live, was released on the order of Scotland's justice minister despite strong opposition from the US, which had campaigned to keep him in prison.
'He is a dying man, he is terminally ill,' Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill told reporters in explanation. 'My decision is that he returns home to die.'
Hundreds of young Libyans gathered at the airport in Tripoli to welcome him, and cheered and waved national flags as his car sped out of the airport -- even though victims' relatives said they had understood there would be no hero's welcome.
Pan Am flight 103 was carrying 189 Americans when it left London for New York on Dec. 21, 1988. In all, 259 people on board and 11 on the ground were killed when a bomb tore apart the aircraft and wreckage fell on the town of Lockerbie.
In a statement issued by his lawyer after his departure, Megrahi said he was innocent of the bombing, but also thanked the people of Scotland for setting him free.
'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,' he said. 'Those who bear me ill will, I do not return that to you.
'This horrible ordeal is not ended by my return to Libya. It may never end for me until I die. Perhaps the only liberation for me will be death.'
The US regretted his release.
'As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland,' the White House said in a statement.
Megrahi, 57, is the only person convicted of the bombing. He lost an appeal in 2002, though a review board ruled in 2007 that there might have been a miscarriage of justice..
A second appeal was withdrawn this week, opening the way for his release on compassionate grounds.
Relatives of many of the American victims thought Megrahi should have served his full life sentence in prison after being convicted of Britain's deadliest terrorist attack.
Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am 103, a group that represents the families of US victims, said he understood the Libyan government had promised that Megrahi would not 'go back to a hero's welcome'
'There is going to be no dancing in the end-zone, as the expression goes,' he told Reuters.
But in Tripoli, despite the fact that state media had not announced his return, hundreds were on the tarmac to cheer him as he emerged from his plane and embraced his waiting sons.
Many carried banners with the name of Libya's National Youth Association, which is close to Saif al Islam, one of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's sons.
One read: 'You promised and you fulfilled the promise and you returned Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to his family.'
Reporters were kept well back from events.
While the relatives of many American victims were convinced of Megrahi's guilt, the families of many of the Britons killed have questioned the quality of the evidence used to convict him, and some have campaigned for his release to die back in Libya.
'I am delighted. I don't think he had anything to do with it and I think he was effectively framed,' Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, told Reuters.
While Megrahi's departure from Britain draws a line under an eight-year saga, the implications of his release for British-Libyan relations may be seen for years to come.<