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The homecoming: Lockerbie bomber arrives in Tripoli

Dying of cancer, the only man to be jailed over the Lockerbie bombing was yesterday flown to Libya. An act of compassion? Or an insult to the 270 victims?

Jonathan Brown
Friday 21 August 2009 00:00 BST

The plane carrying the freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi touched down on the tarmac at Tripoli's Mitiga airport shortly before 8pm yesterday, 10 years and four months after he was extradited from Libya to face trial for the murder of 270 people.

Wearing a dark grey suit and burgundy tie, he emerged to see hundreds of people waving Libyan and Scottish flags and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his face, while Libyan music played in the background. As he tentatively made his way down the steps to greet members of his family, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi who had accompanied Megrahi on his journey, punched the air.

The scenes were a stark contrast to those at Glasgow airport hours earlier where, dressed in a long white tracksuit and baseball cap, his skin sallow and hair grey, he appeared a stooped and frail figure as he left British soil for the last time.

He falteringly climbed the steps of the waiting plane at Glasgow airport just two hours after learning of his release from the prison where he has spent eight years since becoming the only man to be found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 people were killed nearly 21 years ago.

The 57-year-old former intelligence officer returned home to die last night, continuing to protest his innocence as he was released on compassionate grounds after a team of doctors concluded he was suffering from untreatable prostate cancer and had just three months to live.

In a statement read on his behalf by his lawyer he said: "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.

"To those who bear me ill will, I do not return that to you."

Walking with the aid of a stick and with a long white scarf to shield his face from the cameras, the newly released prisoner celebrated his first moments of freedom by shaking hands with his former jailers who accompanied him on the short drive to the airport. Still clutching his release papers he was taken from Greenock Prison in a fast-moving convoy of vehicles which ran the gauntlet of an angry 80-strong crowd that had gathered to jeer and shout insults as he passed by.

Megrahi left Scotland aboard an Afriqiyah Airbus 300 often used by Colonel Gaddafi. In his statement Megrahi said his treatment at the hands of the Scottish legal system had been "nothing short of a disgrace". He said he was deeply relieved to be going home and thanked prison and medical staff for the kindness shown him. He said he bore no ill will to the Scottish people and shared the frustration of victims' relatives that he had been forced to drop his appeal.

But describing his ordeal he said his incarceration in an alien culture separated from his family had proved a "profound dislocation". He said: "I cannot find words in my language or yours that give proper expression to the desolation I have felt. 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. And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do.

"The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction," Megrahi continued. "I have been faced with an appalling choice: to risk dying in prison in the hope that my name is cleared posthumously or to return home still carrying the weight of the guilty verdict, which will never now be lifted."

The carefully choreographed day of events which engendered raw emotions on both sides of the Atlantic began when the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, announced his decision on behalf of the Scottish Government to free Megrahi at a packed lunchtime news conference in Edinburgh. It was scheduled to coincide with breakfast news bulletins in the United States, where the bulk of the Lockerbie victims came from.

In Tripoli, crowds waving flags began to gather at the city's Green Square. Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter was on board the bombed airliner, condemned the celebrations. "I think a hero's welcome is entirely inappropriate in the circumstances," she said.

"I know the man maintains his innocence, but he has been released on compassionate grounds and he remains a convicted man. His return to Tripoli should not have been handled in this way."

Mr MacAskill revealed he had rejected an application to free the Libyan under the controversial prisoner transfer agreement negotiated by Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi against the wishes of the Scottish government at the time. He said that senior US government figures, including Attorney General Eric Holder, and the American families had received British assurances at the Camp Zeist trial that Megrahi would serve his sentence in Scotland – a guarantee which had given the victims' relatives considerable comfort.

The British Government, however, insisted that no such assurances had been made and declined to explain what if any discussions had taken place – a move Mr MacAskill described as "highly regrettable".

Justifying his decision, which he said was his and his alone, the Justice Secretary conceded that some would profoundly disagree with him. But in a carefully argued and rhetorically-charged statement, he appealed to the "humanity" of the Scottish people to prevail. Although Megrahi had shown no compassion to his victims, he admitted, this was not a reason to deny him and his family. "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," said the SNP member and former defence lawyer. Mr MacAskill concluded Megrahi faced a, "sentence imposed by a higher power".

The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs immediately restated US opposition to the decision to free Megrahi, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke off from her holiday to express her "deep disappointment" at the move. The Tory leader David Cameron also criticised the decision, describing it as "completely nonsensical".

Documents released yesterday revealed how Megrahi's medical condition had dramatically deteriorated in the last months of his captivity. Pain which had been limited to his lower back had spread to other parts of his body. He appeared "tired and drawn", was having trouble sleeping and his reliance on medicines had increased.

Final steps to freedom of a dying man

2.30pm As Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi prepares for freedom after serving eight years of a life sentence, a protester waits for him outside Greenock Prison.

2.40pm The police convoy escorting Megrahi swings out of the prison gates on its way to Glasgow airport where it will meet a Libyan jet that is already waiting for him on the runway.

7.50pm Thousands of supporters greet Megrahi, holding a walking stick, as he emerges from the aircraft in Tripoli with Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, one of the Libyan leader's sons.

3.26pm The Airbus carrying the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing finally takes off from Glasgow airport, bound for Libya.

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