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Emotions high over release of Lockerbie bomber

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi is to be freed from a British jail next week in time for Ramadan, reports said, triggering mixed emotions Thursday among victims' relatives.

world Updated: Aug 13, 2009 15:47 IST

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi is to be freed from a British jail next week in time for Ramadan, reports said, triggering mixed emotions Thursday among victims' relatives.

The Scottish government said it was weighing up whether to free the prostate cancer sufferer on compassionate grounds and whether to transfer him home to a jail in Libya, with a decision likely before the end of August.

Megrahi is serving life with a minimum term of 27 years over the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, which killed 270 people in 1988. It was Britain's deadliest terrorist attack.

The former Libyan agent is expected to be returned to his homeland following an announcement by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill next week, the BBC and Sky News television said, without quoting sources.

But a spokesman for the Scottish government said no decision had yet been made, adding: "Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is still considering all the representations in both cases and hopes to make a decision this month."

The reports received a mixed reaction from victims' families -- some said it was "inhumane" to keep a seriously ill man in prison, while others were "sick of hearing about compassion and sympathy" for a "mass murderer."

Among the relatives welcoming the news were Briton Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on board the plane. He told Sky News it was "inhumane" to keep Megrahi in prison and it would be "to Scotland's credit" if he was returned home.

But Susan Cohen, whose daughter also died in the bombing, told Sky News from the US state of New Jersey that if confirmed, the news would be "a disgrace."

"This man is a mass murderer," she said. "I'm sick of hearing about compassion and sympathy. If the man is ill, he can get treatment in prison. If we send him back, he'll be a hero".

Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband Michael was killed, said that freeing Megrahi would send a message that terrorism was not being taken seriously and play into the hands of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

"It shows that if you bide your time and if you wait long enough you can be rewarded, and this is what Colonel Kadhafi has done," she told BBC radio.

Megrahi's lawyers have been following several paths in a bid to secure his release.

The Scottish government said last month that it had received an application for him to be freed on compassionate grounds.

In May, Libya applied for him to be transferred to his homeland under a prisoner transfer treaty between Libya and Britain.

Megrahi also launched a second appeal against his conviction in April after losing an earlier appeal in 2002.

The 57-year-old was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year.

His lawyer says it has spread to other parts of his body and is at an advanced stage, while his wife Aisha Megrahi told AFP earlier this year that he was "in danger of dying."

Megrahi was sentenced in 2001 by three Scottish judges sitting at an extraordinary tribunal in The Netherlands for blowing up Pan Am flight 103 on the night of December 21, 1988, shortly after it left London for New York.

The blast killed all 259 on board, and 11 people on the ground died due to falling debris. Many of those on the flight were Americans travelling home for the Christmas holidays.

Frank Rubino, a US lawyer who has been involved in Megrahi's defence, seemed to confirm the reports of his imminent release.

"I have been advised by members of the international defence team that for humanitarian reasons, (he) is being released from prison because he is suffering from a very serious, in fact fatal, disease," he said.

The BBC reported that the decision to release him was influenced by consensus on all sides that Megrahi should be back in Libya in time for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month next week.