EDINBURGH, Scotland - Scottish officials said Thursday they were considering early release for the Lockerbie bomber - leading to sharp debate among victims' relatives in the U.S. and Britain over whether he should be allowed to return home to Libya.
British media reports say Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi will soon be freed on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill with cancer. The possibility of an imminent release has reignited the fierce debate about whether justice has been done for victims of the attack that killed 270 people - most of them Americans.
The Scottish government dismissed the reports by Sky News and BBC television that he would be released next week as speculation, and said the region's justice minister had yet to review all case information before deciding whether to release al-Megrahi. Neither the BBC nor Sky News cited sources for their reports. A decision had been expected by the end of August.
"Clearly, he is terminally ill, and there are other factors," Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill told the BBC. "But I have made no decision as yet."
MacAskill said it was now clear to him that he would have to act as speedily as possible.
Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan secret service agent, is the sole person convicted for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He was arrested in 1991 in Libya, held under house arrest until handed over in 1998 and convicted in 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Some relatives of the victims expressed outrage over the possibility that al-Megrahi would be freed early.
Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, New Jersey, whose 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, died in the attack, said the idea that al-Megrahi could be freed was a nightmare.
"This is total, pure, ugly appeasement of a terrorist dictator and a monster," Cohen said.
She said that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi would feel vindicated if the convicted bomber could return to Libya.
"Al-Megrahi would be a star," she said, "and we will be left here in ashes and suffering."
Others said al-Megrahi was himself a victim of a miscarriage of justice - and that the truth of what caused the bombing has not emerged.
"Other people and other countries were involved in this," said the Rev. John Mosey, from Worcestershire, England, who lost his daughter Helga, 19. "We should show him some Christian compassion."
Since al-Megrahi's conviction, the dynamics of the relationship between Libya and the West have changed.
Gadhafi engineered a rapprochement with his former critics following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He renounced terrorism and voluntarily dismantled Libya's secret program to develop nuclear weapons - earning commitments from Britain and the United States to work together to contain the threat of international terrorism.
But the possibility that al-Megrahi could leave his Scottish prison exposed long-standing disagreements between victims' families.
Kathleen Flynn, of Montville, New Jersey, told the BBC that "it is terrible to think that someone who was responsible for the bombing could be released on compassionate grounds."
"This is a man who showed no compassion for the 270 people he blew up over Scotland," said Flynn, who's son J.P. was onboard Flight 103.
The spokesman for a group of British relatives offered an opposing view, saying studies of the trial and verdict suggested there was not enough evidence to convict the Libyan.
"I would be delighted if he went home to his family, as it is inhumane to keep him locked up," said Jim Swire, whose 24-year-old daughter, Flora, was on the flight. "Everything points to a miscarriage of justice" in the case.
Associated Press Writer Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, contributed to this report.