LockerbieIsrael news photo

The U.S. State Department has expressed its "deep disappointment" with the decision by the Scottish government to free the only terrorist convicted in the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Dec 21, 1988 flight ended with the bombing of the plane, resulting in the loss of the entire flight.

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, 57, a former Libyan intelligence agent, served only eight years of a 27-year minimum life term in prison for the murders of 259 passengers and crew members, including 189 Americans, and 11 people from the Lockerbie who were killed on the ground.

Al-Megrahi was set free on "compassionate" grounds in response to a prisoner transfer application submitted by the government of Libya due to the terrorist's terminal prostate cancer.

Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill explained the government's decision in a statement released Thursday.

"Prisoner Transfer Agreements (PTAs) are negotiated by the United Kingdom Government. Throughout the negotiations and at the time of the signing of the PTA with Libya, the Scottish Government's opposition was made clear. It was pointed out that the Scottish Prison Service had only one Libyan prisoner in custody. Notwithstanding that, the UK Government failed to secure, as requested by the Scottish Government, an exclusion from the PTA for anyone involved in the Lockerbie Air Disaster. As a consequence Mr Al-Megrahi is eligible for consideration for transfer in terms of the agreement entered into by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Libya," he said.

MacAskill said in his statement that the U.S. government had insisted that pre-trial assurances were given that any person convicted would serve his sentence in Scotland. "Many of the American families spoke of the comfort that they placed upon these assurances over the past ten years. That clear understanding was reiterated to me, by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton," he wrote.

"I sought the views of the United Kingdom Government. I offered them the right to make representations or provide information. They declined to do so. They simply informed me that they saw no legal barrier to transfer and that they gave no assurances to the US Government at the time. They have declined to offer a full explanation as to what was discussed during this time, or to provide any information to substantiate their view. I find that highly regrettable," he wrote.

Because the American families and U.S. government had been led to believe that the terrorist would serve his sentence in Scotland, he added, he rejected the Libyan government's application for a prisoner transfer for Al-Megrahi.

However: "On 24 July 2009 I received an application from Mr Al-Megrahi for compassionate release," wrote MacAskill. "He was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in September 2008. I have been regularly updated as to the progression of his illness. I have received numerous comprehensive medical reports including the opinions of consultants who have been treating him. It is quite clear to the medical experts that he has a terminal illness, and indeed that there has recently been a significant deterioration in his health."

Doctors have said the terrorist has perhaps another three months left to live, and that his condition is irreversible. A recommendation that he be conditionally freed to live out the remainder of his life in Scotland was rejected: "Clear advice from senior police officers is that the security implications of such a move would be severe."

Thus he arrived at the decision to simply let the terrorist go.

"Some hurt can never heal," MacAskill wrote. "Some scars can never fade… However, Mr Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

"The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live. Mr Al-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."

That, he said, was not enough reason to deny the request. "Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown," he explained.

Clinton: 'Deeply Disappointed'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded sharply to the announcement, issuing a statement of her own:

"The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision of the Scottish Executive," she said. "We have continued to communicate our long-standing position to UK government officials and Scottish authorities that Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland.

"Today, we remember those whose lives were lost on December 21, 1988 and we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live each day with the loss of their loved ones due to this heinous crime."