THE hearing lasted just four minutes, but the ramifications will last a lifetime for the convicted man and the relatives of his victims.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, older and greyer than when he appeared at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, walked into the High Court in Glasgow at 8am yesterday - his first public appearance for years and the last glimpse of the city he may have for a very long time.

The police cavalcade taking him to court was shadowed by a helicopter. Officers blocked each exit as he was escorted to the cells, which had been cleared in advance of his arrival. Officials were not willing to take any chances with the former Libyan intelligence officer.

In the dock, Megrahi looked hunched and frail as he listened to the proceedings through headphones and his Libyan translator.

Margaret Scott QC, speaking in Megrahi's defence, said nothing had changed since the same three judges before whom he was appearing recommended a minimum of 20 years at Camp Zeist.

''He serves his sentence in a foreign environment in solitary confinement and he is utterly alone,'' she told the court. It was the only admission before the judges adjourned to make their decision.

Megrahi sat feet away from the press and relatives of some of the victims, separated by bulletproof glass and flanked by prison officers as he heard that he will be 74 before he can even apply for parole.

Although the Libyan looked resigned, several relatives were so outraged they immediately called for the sentence to be appealed. Yesterday's proceedings were supposed to put a cap on the 15-year saga, but instead the decision brought further controversy.

For Kathleen and Jack Flynn, hearing the death of their son and the other 269 victims valued in years was almost unbearable. The Flynns want the lord advocate to appeal against what they see as the leniency of the sentence, which they estimate equates to just over one month per victim.

They believe the new policy of setting the punishment part of the sentence is flawed - and a number of legal experts agree.

In his explanation of the decision, Lord Sutherland referred to the substantial number of cases heard since the law changed in 2001 and the fact that the upper limit seemed to be 30 years.

So although Lord Sutherland said it was a ''wicked act'' and that the sentence ''must inevitably be long'', after a 30-minute adjournment he made Megrahi's punishment part shorter than that of several other Scottish murderers, including Darren Jenkinson, who smothered his two sons.

Jenkinson is trying to appeal against the length of the sentence and Gary McAteer, his solicitor, said: ''How can you compare the killing of two babies with the bombing of a plane? It is almost beyond comparison. At the same time, the punishment given to any person has to be in the context of the criminal justice system. It is easy to see anomalies where there are none but, at the same time, there has to be some correlation between sentencing.''

Robert Black, professor of law at Edinburgh University and one of the leading architects of the original trial, expected the sentence to be far longer.

''It is a nonsense, tinkering about between 20 and 27 years,'' said Professor Black. ''I thought they would give him about 35 or 40 years. But I agree with Megrahi's lawyers that it doesn't really matter, because the important thing is the application to appeal the conviction.''

Megrahi's defence team could appeal over the length of the sentence, but say it is concentrating on proving his innocence. One of them, Eddie MacKechnie, told reporters: ''I respect the gentleman. He will have his day in court, we hope, and then all of us will know what really happened, perhaps, on December 21, 1988.''