WASHINGTON - The United States strongly condemned Thursday's decision by Scottish authorities to free a terminally ill Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing, saying there was no justification for his release.
The Scottish government said Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent who was serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison, was freed on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer. Megrahi was flying home to Libya.
The interests of justice have not been served by this decision, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the top U.S. justice official, said in a statement.
There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House also expressed dismay. Clinton called the bombing a heinous crime and said Washington had lobbied to keep Megrahi behind bars.
We have continued to communicate our long-standing position to U.K. government officials and Scottish authorities that Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland, she said in a statement.
Pan Am Flight 103 was en route from London to New York when it blew up in mid-air over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988. Many of the U.S. victims were from New York and New Jersey.
Earlier this week Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, with the support of six other U.S. senators, wrote to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to ask that Megrahi serve out his sentence.
The release sends the wrong message about the consequences of international terrorism and increases the threat of terror in the United States, the United Kingdom and around the world, Lautenberg said Thursday.
Megrahi, 57, was the only person convicted for the bombing. He lost an appeal against his conviction in 2002, but a Scottish review of his case ruled in 2007 that there may have been a miscarriage of justice.
Suse Lowenstein, of Montauk, New York, whose Alexander Lowenstein was killed at age 21, said of Thursday's news:
It is so devastating and it is difficult for me to accept that the one man we had responsible for the murders of our son and the 270 victims in total is now going home to die in the arms of his family. It is just beyond comprehension.
He has the luxury to be at home with his family, which our son did not have. He was murdered at the age of 21, and surely if he had to die he would have liked to die with us as well.
Megrahi's release came against the backdrop of improving relations between Libya and Western nations, spurred by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's decision in 2003 to drop his nuclear weapons program. The United States and Britain had ostracized Gaddafi following the Lockerbie bombing.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Sue Pleming in Washington and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Paul Simao and Frances Kerry)