Despite intensive last-minute lobbying by the US government, the Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and killing 270 people is on his way home to Libya today after serving just eight years of a life sentence in a Scottish prison.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is said to be suffering from a terminal illness, was released today on compassionate grounds by Scotland's justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. At around 2:30 in the afternoon in Scotland, a commercial jet dispatched by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi touched down in Glasgow to whisk Mr. Megrahi home to a hero's welcome. A few minutes later, a convoy of vehicles departed Greenock Prison where a crowd of Scottish locals hurled jeers at the white van in the center of them.
Megrahi was the only man ever convicted in the 1988 attack, which killed 189 Americans, making it this country's single largest terrorist attack on civilians before Sept. 11.
"In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity," Mr. MacAskill said in a statement. "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs we seek to live by ... no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated. "For these reasons alone it is my decision that Mr. Al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die."
Jim Wolfe doesn't see the humanity in Megarahi's release. His 20-year-old daughter Miriam, an aspiring actress, was one of 35 Syracuse University students murdered that day. "He's a mass murderer," Wolfe shouts in the background as his wife Rosemary discusses the Scottish decision on the phone.
"My husband and I are very angry and very emotionally upset right now," explains Ms. Wolfe. "[MacAskill]) is talking about the humanity of the Scottish people. Would they release Hitler or Bin laden? It's a blight on Scotland, which is a shame particularly since the Scottish people were so decent and humane at the time. They washed and ironed the clothes of the victims, the Scottish police combed 8 square miles ... this is totally devastating for us and the other families."
MacAskill ignored the pleas of a number of US senators and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who urged that he serve out his sentence in Scotland, as per an earlier agreement. A letter signed by seven senators this week said the bombing was a "horrific act of international terrorism" and urged that Megrahi remain in jail.
Under crippling United Nations sanctions, Qaddafi – after years of refusing to extradite Megrahi to stand trial in a foreign court – eventually agreed to a hybrid arrangement in which Scottish judges would try him in a Dutch court. That deal, which the United States agreed to, required the full sentence to be served in Scotland.
A number of the family members of victims don't believe the release was really about allowing Megrahi to die with his family.
"This is all about oil," says Wolfe, noting Libya's vast untapped oil reserves. UK-based oil company BP has been expanding its business and relations with Qaddafi's regime in recent years. Wolfe says that US oil companies had also pressured the US to back off in the run up to Megrahi's trial. "We were told that executives for oil companies were calling the administration daily," she says.
"The Bush administration said nothing when Blair was negotiating this with Libya and while I appreciate Sec. Clinton's strong statements in the past two months, I do feel Obama could have done more, sooner."
The Wolfes, like many of the victims' family members, do not believe Megrahi acted alone, and believe other countries besides Libya could have been involved in the attack. But his jailing, she said, "was the only pressure we had to get at the truth."
• Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed reporting.