It was "deeply distressing" and "deeply upsetting" to see the convicted Lockerbie bomber get a hero’s welcome in Libya, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Friday.
The way Libya handles the return of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi will determine its place on the world stage, Miliband said. Al Megrahi, 57, was freed Thursday from the Scottish prison where he had been serving a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. He suffers from terminal prostate cancer and has three months to live, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said. Watch MacAskill deliver his announcement » MacAskill released al Megrahi on compassionate grounds, saying he was going home to die. His decision was highly controversial, drawing criticism from the United States and dividing family members of the 270 Lockerbie victims. A large crowd, waving flags and honking horns, greeted al Megrahi as he stepped off the plane Thursday in the Libyan capital. “Obviously, the sight of a mass murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Tripoli is deeply upsetting, deeply distressing,” Miliband told BBC radio Friday morning. He added that personally, “I find it deeply distressing of course, as well.” Miliband did not mention any opposition to al Megrahi’s release in the BBC interview, but he did say that Libya must now act responsibly. “I think it’s very important that Libya knows, and certainly we have told them, that how the Libyan government handles itself in the next few days after the arrival of Mr. Megrahi will be very significant in the way the world views Libya’s reentry into the civilized community of nations,” Miliband said.
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“It is in our interests to stand up for our own principles in the interests of international relations,” he said. “Where Libya is willing to abide and engage in the international system in a way that does the right thing for those international principles, we will engage with Libya.” Al Megrahi always maintained his innocence, complaining that he had to spend years in prison for something he did not do. “The remaining days of my life will have to be spent under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction,” he said in a statement issued Thursday through his attorney. Watch Lockerbie bomber maintain his innocence » He also offered sympathy to the families of the victims. Al Megrahi said he never will return to Scotland, and he offered his gratitude and best wishes to the Scottish people. The U.S. government responded Thursday to al Megrahi’s release, saying it “deeply regrets” the decision. “As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland,” the White House said in a statement. Watch President Obama say release is “mistake” » Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a similarly worded statement. “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,” Clinton said. And the FBI said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” over the decision to release al Megrahi. “In a case of mass murder over Lockerbie, Mr. Megrahi served less than 14 days per victim,” FBI director Robert Mueller said in the statement. The justice secretary said he decided not to transfer al Megrahi to a Libyan prison, even though a prisoner transfer agreement exists between the United Kingdom and Libya, but instead chose to set him free on compassionate grounds. Families of the Lockerbie victims have been sharply divided over whether al Megrahi should ever be released. Susan Cohen, who lost her 20-year-old daughter, was adamant about her position, calling al Megrahi a “mass murderer” and his release “appalling.” “Are we so devastatingly weak now, have we lost all our moral fiber that you can say that Megrahi can be released from prison for a compassionate release Where was his compassion for my daughter Where was his compassion for all those people,” Cohen told “American Morning.” Watch Cohen condemn the release » Bert Ammerman, whose brother died in the bombing, called al Megrahi’s release “ludicrous.” “First of all, he got his compassionate release when he got life imprisonment and not capital punishment, which Scotland doesn’t have,” Ammerman told CNN. He should have remained in prison, then after his death, his body could have been returned to Libya, he said. “Two, he’s going to be going back, even if he has terminal cancer, as a hero, and he’s going to be received as a hero in Libya,” Ammerman said. “Three, let’s cut through all this information. He’s being released because big business in the United States, Great Britain want the oil in Libya, and that’s what’s driving this whole wagon,” he said. iReport.com: My uncle never got to say goodbye Al Megrahi was convicted in 2001 after the prosecution argued he had placed the bomb, hidden in a suitcase, on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany. There, prosecutors said, the bomb was transferred onto the Pan Am plane that went first to London, England’s Heathrow Airport and then took off for New York. Another man — Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima — was also tried in the bombing but was acquitted. The prosecution maintained al Megrahi, who worked at Malta’s Luqa Airport, was an agent for the Libyan intelligence services and had been seen buying clothes that were in the suitcase that contained the bomb. Libya has formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and has compensated the families, though Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi later denied any culpability. “Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands,” MacAskill said. “The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. 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.” Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie four days before Christmas in 1988 while traveling from London to New York. All 259 of those aboard the plane — including 189 Americans — and 11 people on the ground were killed.