Shock and outrage echoed Thursday from Western New York to the White House as Scotland freed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988.
"I'm just really, really upset," said Cheryl Brunner, whose sister, Colleen, a 20-year-old Oswego State College student from Hamburg, was among the 270 killed in the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Brunner was sickened over images she saw on television of al-Megrahi, 57, who is dying of prostate cancer, as he arrived in Tripoli, where Libyans waved Libyan and Scottish flags in celebration of his return.
"[Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi says he won't get a hero's welcome," Brunner said. "Guess what? He did. . . . They're applauding in Libya. They won. It's ridiculous."
Said to have only a few months to live, al-Megrahi was released Thursday on "compassionate grounds" and allowed to return to Libya to die.
Kenny MacAskill, Scotland's justice secretary, said al-Megrahi's condition had deteriorated. Although al-Megrahi had served only about eight years of a 27-years-to-life sentence, MacAskill said he was bound by Scottish values to release him.
"Our belief dictates that justice be served but mercy be shown," MacAskill said. "Some hurts can never heal; some scars can never fade," he added. "Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. . . . However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power."
The airliner -- carrying mostly Americans from London to New York City -- blew up over Scotland. Investigators said a bomb had been smuggled into the plane's cargo hold in a suitcase. All 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground died when the plane crashed into the town of Lockerbie.
It was considered the worst terrorist attack on U.S. civilians until Sept. 11, 2001.
The disaster struck upstate New York's college communities particularly hard. The victims included 35 students from Syracuse University, two from Oswego State College, two from Colgate University and one from the University at Buffalo. They had been studying abroad and were heading home for the holidays when the plane exploded.
As rumors spread of the imminent release, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned MacAskill urging him not to free al-Megrahi, and seven U.S. senators, including the two from New York, submitted a letter with a similar message.
After Scotland announced that al-Megrahi would be freed, the White House said it "deeply regrets" the decision.
"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," the White House said in a statement.
Syracuse University released a statement saying the school was "extremely disappointed" in the decision to release al-Megrahi, "given the tremendous suffering this terrorist act caused to innocent citizens."
After hearing about the release, Cheryl Brunner echoed those feelings.
"They say he's dying and that's why they're letting him go," she said. "That's ridiculous. There are a lot of people in jail who are dying. Let him die in jail. But I guess there's nothing we can do."
Two years ago, she went to Lockerbie; she said she still talks to her late sister.
"I just keep telling her we're sorry," she said. "What else can you say?"
Andy Capasso, the brother of Gregory Capasso, the UB student aboard the doomed plane, was appalled by the Libyan's release.
"It's an injustice," he said in a phone interview. "We're very angry and upset."
"I think it's outrageous," he said. "I think a lot of this has to do with oil, with a lot of countries wanting to deal with Libya. We've been making some concession to Libya because of the economic situation. That's what I think is happening."
Family members of the victims who had gotten a sliver of comfort knowing al-Megrahi was behind bars were stunned by the sudden announcement of his release. They had heard a few months ago about a possibility that he would be freed but learned just a few days ago that it would happen.
"As I'm watching him now [on television] getting ready to board a plane and go home to a parade, I'm getting angry," said Joanne Hartunian of Delmar, N.Y., who lost her daughter Lynne, a student at Oswego State. "And I didn't want to get angry. I didn't want to waste any more time thinking about this man."
But not all the relatives thought the release was wrong.
"This is just one little thing that says this is not going to hurt any of us for him to be released and go die with his family," said Caroline Stevens of Little Rock, Ark., whose son Frederick "Sandy" Phillips," a Syracuse student, died in the bombing. "We've got to look at one another in a more compassionate way and not rely on war and revenge and all that."
Al-Megrahi was convicted on Jan. 31, 2001. Prosecutors said he worked for Libyan intelligence services, but al-Megrahi has denied that.
He was convicted largely based on the testimony of a shopkeeper who identified him as having bought a man's shirt in his store in Malta. Scraps of the garment were found wrapped around a timing device discovered in the wreckage of the airliner.
A second suspect in the bombing, was acquitted in 2001.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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