Lockerbie families still seek answers from Libya
NEW YORK (AP) — For relatives of the people who died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, the death Sunday of the only man who was convicted stirred up questions once again about his guilt and whether others went unpunished.
It also gave families a chance to reissue pleas for further investigation.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence official, died of cancer, a relative said. Al-Megrahi was convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town on Dec. 21, 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, many of them New York and New Jersey residents. Syracuse University in central New York was particularly hard hit: 35 students on the way home for Christmas break died in the bombing.
Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi handed over al-Megrahi and a second suspect to Scottish authorities after years of punishing U.N. sanctions. In 2003, Gadhafi acknowledged responsibility, though not guilt, for the bombing and paid compensation of about $2.7 billion to victims' families.
The families had banded together after the bombing, immersing themselves in terrorist policy, international relations and airline security and lobbying for compensation from the Libyan government. Some relatives attended al-Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands. When he was released to Libya from a Scottish prison in 2009 on humanitarian grounds — he was supposedly close to death — they were outraged, especially after al-Megrahi lived far longer than the few months the doctors had believed.
Still, their views on al-Megrahi's role in the bombing are far from uniform.
"Megrahi is the 271st victim of Lockerbie," said David Ben-Ayreah, who represents some British families of victims. He attended the trial and still believes al-Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing.
Even those who believe al-Megrahi did take part in the bombing say his death still leaves questions unanswered.
"It closes a chapter but it doesn't close the book. We know he wasn't the only person involved," Frank Dugan, president of the group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, said from Alexandria, Va.
To the end, al-Megrahi insisted he had nothing to do with the bombing. Those who believe him got a boost in 2007 when a three-year investigation by a Scottish tribunal found that new evidence — and old evidence withheld from trial — suggested that al-Megrahi "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Its 800-page report prompted an appeal on al-Megrahi's behalf, but by then his fate was in the hands of politicians in London, Tripoli and Edinburgh, all of whom jockeyed for position as Libya rebuilt its ties with Britain and al-Megrahi's health deteriorated.
Still protesting his innocence, al-Megrahi dropped the appeal in a bid to clear the path for his release on compassionate grounds. He flew home to a hero's welcome in 2009.
He should have died in prison, said Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose daughter was among the Syracuse University students on the flight.
"The fact that he was able to get out and live with his family these past few years is an appalling miscarriage of justice. There was no excuse for that," Cohen said Sunday. "He should have died in the Scottish prison. He should have been tried in the United States and faced capital punishment."
Al-Megrahi's death should not be an excuse to stop trying to find out who was behind the bombing, she added. She called on U.S. and British officials to "dig even deeper" into the case.
Bert Ammerman of River Vale, N.J., lost his brother in the bombing. He blames the U.S. and Britain for failing to track all leads in the case and noted that Gadhafi's former spy chief was arrested in March in Mauritania.
"He holds the key to what actually took place in Pan Am 103," Ammerman said. "He knows what other individuals were involved and, more importantly, what other countries were involved."
After Gadhafi's fall, Britain asked Libya's new rulers to help fully investigate but they put off any probe.
"Ironically, 24 years later, I now have more confidence in the new Libyan government than the British or American governments to find the truth because I believe Libya would like the truth to come out to show that they were not the only country involved," Ammerman said.
Jim Swire, whose 19-year-old daughter, Flora, died in the bombing, is a leading voice for some of the British families who believe al-Megrahi was innocent. Swire, who attended the trial in the Netherlands, asked for further inquiry from the Scottish government.
He said he saw al-Megrahi in December. "We talked as two old friends who were saying goodbye," he said.
Selva reported from London. Associated Press writers Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J., Deepti Hajela in New York and Ben McConville in Scotland contributed to this report.