JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the release of a convicted Lockerbie bomber. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels narrates our report.
SPENCER MICHELS: The only person ever convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 left a Scottish jail today a free man. He was hustled to the airport in a convoy of armored police vehicles.
And then, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, looking frail and suffering from terminal prostate cancer, slowly boarded a jet sent from Libya and took off for home.
Megrahi served eight years of his life sentence. Doctors say he has less than three months to live. And with that in mind, the Scottish authorities granted his request to return home to die.
KENNY MACASKILL, Scottish justice secretary: Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed, but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
SPENCER MICHELS: Two hundred fifty-nine people on board, and 11 others on the ground, were killed when the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, torn apart by a bomb hidden among the baggage. Most of the victims — 189 of them — were Americans.
Family members of victims expressed outrage at Megrahi’s release. Bert Ammerman lost his brother.
Families find no justice in release
BERT AMMERMAN: And then compassionate release is the most ludicrous statement I have heard in 20 years regarding Pan Am Flight 103. The man murdered 270 people, 259 at 31,000 feet.
I believe there's more than one person that did this. I believe there was more than one country that did this. But at least we got justice on one individual, and now we've even lost that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kathleen Flynn's son was flying home for the holidays on Pan Am 103.
KATHLEEN FLYNN: You don't allow someone who has murdered -- you know, premeditated murder of 270 innocent people and let them walk away.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stephanie Bernstein's husband died, too.
RABBI STEPHANIE BERNSTEIN: The Scottish people and the British people ought to be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to happen. Why in God's name we should release the person found -- the only person found guilty by a legitimate Scottish court of the largest mass murder in British history?
SPENCER MICHELS: But some family members supported the release. Jim Swire lost his daughter.
JIM SWIRE: It's the right result, that it's compassionate, not prisoner transfer. The case of Lockerbie has been laced with politics from beginning to end, and I think there should always be a place in any nation's behavior for some compassion.
SPENCER MICHELS: President Obama reacted this afternoon on a radio program that was also broadcast on cable television.
Obama speaks out against decision
U.S PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have been in contact with the Scottish government indicating that we objected to this, and we thought it was a mistake. We're now in contact with the Libyan government and want to make sure that if, in fact, this transfer has taken place, that he's not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest. We've also, obviously, been in contact with the families of the Pan Am victims and indicated to them that we don't think this was appropriate.
SPENCER MICHELS: It took 12 years of forensic investigation and international pressure before Megrahi was brought to justice in 2001. He was once an intelligence officer, and the Libyan government denied his role in the bombing for years.
In Tripoli today, Libyans gathered around televisions to watch news of Megrahi's release, which many consider a moral victory.
LIBYAN MAN: This is great news for all Libyan people and for all the people around the world who care for justice. We were confident and sure from the beginning that he was innocent.
SPENCER MICHELS: In July, Megrahi wrote a letter to the Scottish justice secretary in which he repeated his innocence, saying, "I have been separated from my family as a result of what I consider to be an unjust conviction."
Tonight, thousands of supporters gathered at the military airport in Tripoli to give Megrahi a hero's welcome, waving Libyan and Scottish flags. He joins his family in time for Ramadan, as he had hoped.