, EDINBURGH, Aug 20 – The Scottish government on Thursday freed on compassionate grounds a Libyan jailed for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in the face of fierce US opposition.
Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi, the only person to be convicted for the 1988 bombing of a US passenger jet that killed 270 people, has terminal prostate cancer.
Doctors say he has less than three months to live and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said Megrahi, 57, could return to Libya to die because Scottish law required that "justice be served but mercy be shown."
Megrahi "now faces justice from a higher power… he is going to die," MacAskill told a press conference.
The gesture was immediately condemned by the US government.
"The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi," a White House statement said.
"On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones. We recognise the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US lawmakers and relatives of the American dead had also fiercely opposed the move.
But in Tripoli, an official in the Libyan prime minister’s office said: "He is free and will arrive in Libya in a few hours."
The attack on Pan Am flight 103 which blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988 was the worst terrorist attack committed in Britain.
MacAskill has been considering three options in Megrahi’s case: transferring him to a Libyan jail, freeing him on compassionate grounds or keeping him in Greenock prison, near Glasgow.
In the run-up to the decision, Secretary of State Clinton had led strong US opposition to the release.
Seven US senators wrote to the Scottish government demanding that Megrahi – convicted in 2001 after a trial held under Scots law at a special court in the Netherlands – serve out his sentence in Britain.
Many US relatives agree. Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 group which represents US victims’ families, told BBC radio: "Even if he’s dying, he was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison in Scotland and he’s not, he’s going back to Libya."
Following the release, Megrahi could be back with his family in time for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan which starts Friday.
The Times reported that Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi was to send his private jet to collect Megrahi and take him home.
The decision comes amid thawing relations between Libya and Britain, which were arch-enemies in the 1980s and 1990s.
Libya has the largest proven oil reserves of any country in Africa, much of it still untapped, and British firms including BP and Shell have signed major exploration deals in the country in recent years.
Saad Djebbar, a lawyer who has worked with the Libyan government on the case, told BBC radio that freeing Megrahi would be a huge boost to relations between Britain and the whole Arab world.
"Rest assured that the (Scottish) government has done the UK government a great favour," he said.
"Britain and Scotland will grow in the eyes of the Arab states."
One major obstacle to Megrahi returning to Libya was removed on Tuesday when Edinburgh’s High Court ruled that he could drop his appeal against conviction.
Megrahi and co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were handed over by Libya for trial after years of diplomatic wrangling.
The pair was originally indicted in 1991 for the attack following an investigation by British and US police.
He worked as chief of airline security for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta at the time of the attack. But US detectives claimed his airline work served as a cover for a role with the Libyan Secret Service.
Fhimah was acquitted but Megrahi was convicted of mass murder in 2001.
He has long protested his innocence. His first appeal failed in 2002 and he launched a second appeal in Scotland in April.
Then, his lawyer Margaret Scott argued that the initial trial convicted him on "wholly circumstantial evidence" and said there had been a "miscarriage of justice."