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Libya's giant step backward

In September 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya to symbolize the opening of new ties between the United States and oil-rich Libya. It was the first visit to the former pariah nation by America's top diplomat in more than a half century.

Rice and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi discussed trade and investment issues. The trip was spurred by Libya's abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003, its renouncement of terrorism and compensation of the families of victims of Libyan-linked attacks, including the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

Fast forward to Thursday, when convicted Pan Am bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released from prison after serving just eight years of a life sentence for the deaths of 259 passengers — 180 Americans — and 11 people on the ground. His release was granted by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds because al-Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer.

Al-Megrahi's release sparked outrage in the United States and the United Kingdom. President Barack Obama described al-Megrahi's release as a "mistake." He and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Libya to show restraint on the return of al-Megrahi.

Crowds in Tripoli, however, gave al-Megrahi a joyful, public welcome as he stepped on to Libyan soil alongside Moammar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. Some waved the flag of Scotland. Some supporters threw flower petals as al-Megrahi was swept away in a convoy of white SUVs.

It was salt in a still-open wound and a significant step backward in diplomatic relations between the United States and Great Britain.

Although Scotland, which has independent authority within the United Kingdom, made the decision to release al-Megrahi, justice was not served. Al-Megrahi should have served his entire sentence in Scotland. Peaceful nations should be concerned about what sort of message this decision sends to terrorists and would-be terrorists.

The world will also be watching how Libya proceeds with al-Megrahi in its custody. It will have a direct impact on the future direction of the diplomatic and trade relations between Libya and the United States, which had begun to thaw during the Bush administration.

While some efforts were made to downplay al-Megrahi's return to Libya (the Libyan TV channel granted exclusive rights to broadcast al-Megrahi's arrival live did not do so), any degree of celebration was damaging and inappropriate. Libya must carefully contemplate its next moves.