The US President’s criticism of the “mistake” added to a growing backlash against the Scottish decision to free the biggest mass murderer in British legal history on compassionate grounds.
Hours after the Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh announced its decision to free him, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 atrocity, flew home to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli.
Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, has terminal prostate cancer and has less than three months to live. Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice minister, said freeing him showed Scotland’s “humanity.”
Despite his illness, Megrahi, 57, managed to walk unaided up the steps of the plane at Glasgow airport, his face hidden by a white baseball cap.
After he left Scottish soil, Megrahi, who has served just eight years of a 27-year sentence, released a statement protesting his innocence and expressing his “sympathy” for the families of the 270 people he was convicted of killing.
The US government condemned the decision to release him, as did US relatives of some of the victims of the 1988 atrocity.
One US Senator said that by releasing Megrahi, Scottish ministers had increased the threat of international terrorism, and internet campaigners threatened a US boycott of Scottish products.
Mr Obama said: “We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this, and we thought it was a mistake.”
He added that he is now pressuring the Libyan government to keep Megrahi under house arrest until his death.
Gordon Brown’s Government declined to comment, but David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said it was “wrong.”
Mr Cameron said: “This man was convicted of murdering 270 people, he showed no compassion to them, they weren’t allowed to go home and die with their relatives in their own bed and I think this is a very bad decision.”
Mr MacAskill, who is facing growing criticism at home over his handling of the case, and the Scottish Parliament will next week be recalled from its summer break to debate the issue.
At a press conference announcing his decision the minister attempted to shift the blame to Gordon Brown’s Government in London saying they had not expressed an opinion on Megrahi’s fate.
Ministers in London made no public response, but sources said Mr MacAskill’s complaint was “bizarre”. Under the devolution settlement that created the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Edinburgh administration has sole responsibility for Scottish prisoners
In a 20-minute statement explaining his decision, Mr MacAskill claimed releasing Megrahi was an expression of unique Scottish “values.”
He said: “In Scotland we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.
“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.”
But as Meghahi flew home, the decision triggered a growing backlash against Scotland in the US.
When Megrahi was convicted by Scottish judges at an international court in the Netherlands in 2001, the US said that he should serve his life sentence in Scotland.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live each day with the loss of their loved ones due to this heinous crime,” she said.
Eric Holder, the Attorney General, repudiated the legal grounding of Mr MacAskill’s decision. “There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans,” he said.
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said: He said: “Releasing Mr. al-Megrahi 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.”
While some British relatives of Lockerbie victims welcomed the decision, American families were strongly critical.
Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora, said: “You want to feel sorry for anyone, please feel sorry for me, feel sorry for my poor daughter, her body falling a mile through the air.”
An US-based internet campaign, www.boycottscotland.com, was launched after the decision. It urges Americans: “Don’t travel to Scotland or do business there (or in the United Kingdom in general) and don’t buy any British or Scottish products.”
Megrahi learned of his release at 1pm. Barely two hours later, he boarded a private jet to be flown home to Tripoli, and a reunion with his wife Aisha and their five children.
After the plane had taken off, his lawyer released a statement on his behalf.
“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.” Megrahi said. “To those who bear me ill will, I do not return that to you.”
Megrahi has always protested his innocence, and had previously insisted that he would only return home if he had cleared his name.
However, he dropped his final appeal this week. That came as a bitter disappointment to British relatives, who saw his appeal as the only chance of getting a full independent review of the bombing. –Telegraph