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Lockerbie questions unresolved for victims' families

Joe Napsha
| Sunday, May 20, 2012, 9:52 p.m.
Convicted Pan Am bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi's death leaves many questions about the attack and its aftermath.
Convicted Pan Am bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi's death leaves many questions about the attack and its aftermath.
A rose rests at the base of the main headstone in the Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial garden on Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Lockerbie, Scotland.
Reuters
A rose rests at the base of the main headstone in the Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial garden on Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Lockerbie, Scotland. Reuters

The death of the only person convicted of the airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people does not bring their families any closer to the truth, relatives of two Seton Hill University students who were among the victims said on Sunday.

"The only thing this does is close one chapter," said Glenn Johnson of Hempfield, referring to the death of convicted terrorist Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi in Libya. Johnson's daughter Beth Ann Johnson, 21, died in the explosion of the plane on Dec. 21, 1988.

Iva Saraceni of Salem, mother of Pan Am Flight 103 victim Elyse "Lisi" Saraceni, 20, said al-Megrahi's death does not bring justice to the victims' families.

"It's immaterial. This is nothing. We'd like justice, but this isn't it," Saraceni said.

Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence official, died at his home in the Libyan capital of complications from prostate cancer, his brother said yesterday. Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of planning the bombing, although he always maintained his innocence.

"The big question is whether he was solely responsible or even responsible at all," Saraceni said.

Beth Ann Johnson and Lisi Saraceni were aboard Flight 103, heading home for the holidays after a semester of studying in England. The plane blew apart 31,000 feet over the Scottish town when a bomb hidden in a cassette recorder exploded in the cargo hold. Two other victims had ties to Western Pennsylvania: David J. Gould, 45, of Squirrel Hill and Army Maj. Charles McKee, 40, of Trafford.

Victims' families 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 British captivity in 2009 on humanitarian grounds as he was supposedly close to death, they were outraged, especially after al-Megrahi received a hero's welcome and then survived far longer than the few months the doctors had predicted.

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 believes al-Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing.

Johnson said he wants U.S. officials to press the new Libyan government, established after a revolt ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, to release documents pertaining to the bombing of Flight 103 to find out the truth of the downing of the plane.

Gadhafi handed over al-Megrahi and a second suspect to Scottish authorities after years of punishing United Nations sanctions. In 2003, Gadhafi acknowledged responsibility, though not guilt, for the bombing and paid compensation of about $2.7 billion to victims' families.

It was no coincidence, Johnson said, that within a few weeks of al-Megrahi's release, BP Global managed to get Libya's approval to drill for oil off its shores under a 2007 agreement that was valued at $900 million.

"It was all about the money. BP had tried for two years, but Gadhafi would not sign it. That was all a lie," Johnson said of the Scottish government's rationale for freeing al-Megrahi after he had served eight years of a 27-year sentence.

Johnson said he heard of al-Megrahi's death while preparing to go to Arlington, Va., for a meeting today of the Transportation Security Administration's Aviation and Security Advisory Committee, which consists of officials from the FBI, the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and the airline pilots union. He has been part of a group pressing for an increase in airport security.

Even those who believed al-Megrahi took part in the bombing say his death still leaves questions.

"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.

In 2007, a three-year investigation by a Scottish tribunal cited new evidence -- and old evidence withheld from trial -- suggesting that al-Megrahi "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Their 800-page report prompted an appeal on his 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.

Al-Megrahi dropped the appeal in a bid to clear the path for his release on compassionate grounds.

He should have died in jail, said Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose daughter was among 35 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. "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. Cohen called on U.S. and British officials to "dig even deeper" into the case.

Bert Ammerman of River Vale, N.J., lost his brother and was for years president of the victims group. He blames the United States 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. 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.

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