White House 'deeply regrets' Pan Am bomber's release

ImageThe Obama administration expressed disappointment Thursday over the release of the man convicted of bombing Pan Am Fight 103 from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration "deeply regrets" the release of Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer implicated in the 1988 bombing over Scotland that killed all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground. Of the passengers and crew, 180 were Americans.

"The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi," Gibbs said in a statement.

A Scottish judge ordered al-Megrahi, 57, released on compassionate grounds after serving just eight years of a life sentence. He is suffering from terminal prostate cancer.

The White House has continually urged against the native Libyan's release, Gibbs said.

"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," Gibbs said.

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U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder, along with White House officials, had been in extensive contact with counterparts in Scotland and the United Kingdom to communicate strong opposition to the release, the White House said.

"The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision of the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103," Clinton said in a statement.

"We have continued to communicate our long-standing position to UK government officials and Scottish authorities that Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in Scotland," she added. "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."

Seven senators — John Kerry (D-Mass.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — had also called on Scotland in a letter to keep the convicted bomber in prison.

Lautenberg said in a statement Wednesday that al-Megrahi's release would heighten the risk for terrorist attacks in the U.S.

"The man who committed these awful crimes should not be allowed to walk free," Lautenberg said. "Releasing Mr. al-Megrahi also 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."

Kerry also reacted angrily to the news in a Thursday statement. "The news today from Glasgow turned the word ‘compassion’ on its head. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was unforgivable," the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committe said.

"Megrahi showed no compassion to the innocent passengers and Scottish villagers he murdered; he should not receive our compassion now," Kerry added. "Justice is ill-served by his early release."

Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice secretary, defended the decision as one of mercy at a press conference. "Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power, one that no court in any jurisdiction in any land could revoke or over-rule," he said. "It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."

The White House, meanwhile, expressed sympathy for family members of the victims.

"On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones," Gibbs said. "We recognize the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever."

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.

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