Defying American pressure, the Scottish government on Thursday went ahead and released Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan agent who was serving a life sentence in a Scottish jail for his role in the 1988 Lockerbie air crash which killed 270 passengers, mostly American.

Mr. Megrahi (57), who has terminal prostate cancer, was freed on compassionate grounds after doctors said he had barely months to live.

Announcing the controversial decision, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said Mr. Megrahi would be allowed to spend the last days his life with his family in Libya. The announcement was greeted with fury in Washington and by families of victims.

The White House said it “deeply regretted” the decision. Earlier, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it would be “absolutely wrong’’ to free a man who had been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people. Mr. Megrahi was jailed in 2001 after Libya handed him over for trial in a special Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands.

He was found guilty and sentenced to spend at least 27 years in jail for planting a bomb aboard a London-New York Pan Am flight 103 which crashed over Lockerbie, in Scotland, on December 21, 1988 killing all the 259 people on board, besides 11 on the ground.

Mr. Megrahi always protested his innocence and an appeal against his conviction was to be heard soon. There is a view that he was made a “scapegoat” in a bid by the Libyan government to shield the real culprits.

Mr. MacAskill acknowledged that the families of the victims had reason to be angry but justified it on compassionate grounds.

“Mr. al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days.

But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available,” he said.

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