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WikiLeaks: Flight 103 bomber's release tied to the British

| Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

Surprise was not among the emotions Glenn Johnson experienced when he learned the British government likely played a greater role than publicly acknowledged in orchestrating the release of his daughter's murderer.

"I personally, from the beginning, thought it was the British who made the decision," said Johnson of Hempfield, who lost his daughter, Beth Ann, 21, in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

His suspicions were reaffirmed in classified diplomatic cables leaked recently by the online site WikiLeaks.

Johnson, a Seton Hill University student, was on her way home for Christmas after studying abroad when she died. Another Seton Hill student, Elyse Saraceni of Salem Township, was killed in the crash, along with Army Maj. Charles McKee of Trafford and David Gould of Squirrel Hill.

Former Libyan intelligence official Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 for his role in the bomb plot that killed 270 people. He was released from a Scottish prison in 2009, after serving less than nine years. Scottish authorities said that the release was based on "compassionate grounds," because Megrahi, who suffered from prostate cancer, had less than three months to live.

Megrahi, who returned to a hero's welcome in Libya, is still alive more than a year later, and according to documents posted by WikiLeaks, it was the British government that pushed for his release.

"This is certainly what we thought," said Stephanie Bernstein of Maryland, who lost her husband, Michael, in the bombing. "Nevertheless, seeing this in black and white is really stunning."

In one 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats stationed in Libya wrote that the "essentially thuggish" regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi made "specific threats," including "the immediate cessation of all U.K. commercial activity in Libya, a diminishment or severing of political ties and demonstrations against official U.K. facilities."

According to the Americans, officials of the North African nation implied "that the welfare of U.K. diplomats and citizens in Libya would be at risk" if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison.

Before Megrahi's release, the British government said the decision about Megrahi's fate rested with Scottish authorities. The cables, however, revealed that British officials told American diplomats that they worried about harm to British commercial, oil and gas deals.

A $900 million exploration agreement between British oil company BP and Libya, announced soon after the release, revealed the potential impact of the Libyans' threats. It angered victims' family members.

"It's so frustrating, but if you dwell on it, it will just drive you crazy," Glenn Johnson said.

Johnson said he and other family members aren't buying reports that Megrahi has lapsed into a coma and is near death.

It's a claim that victims' family members have heard before.

Johnson's wife, Carole, said it doesn't matter if Megrahi dies now or years from now.

"Even though we families were denied justice here," she said, "there is a higher power that he will have to answer to."

Another leaked cable, sent by U.S. diplomats in Libya, detailed the Libyan reaction to Megrahi's release, which apparently strengthened Libyan ties with the U.K.

According to the cable, after the release, Gadhafi's son and potential successor, Saif al-Islam, "thanked the Scottish and British governments and stated that the friendship between Libya and both nations would be 'forever consolidated.' "

While the United States officially opposed Megrahi's release, it did not strongly lobby the U.K. to prevent it. The leaked cables show that U.S. officials were concerned that Libya might harm American interests as well, if Megrahi had died in prison.

"There may be repercussions for our interests here even if we remain neutral," a cable from the U.S. Embassy in London stated. "There will almost certainly be consequences if we publicly take a position opposing his transfer."

Bernstein had harsh words for both the British and U.S. governments.

"I just feel as if no one is ready to stand up and do the right thing in either government," Bernstein said, asserting that the release undermined the U.S. and British stance against terrorism. "Here is something that is very clear, and we didn't have the guts to stand up• What's the point if we're going to roll over?"

While U.S. officials have condemned WikiLeaks for releasing the secret cables, Bernstein said she was glad the information had been released.

"I think we have a right to know how our government works," she said. "In this case, it's not very well."

Bernstein noted that her husband, a Department of Justice lawyer, had been returning on Flight 103 from Austria, where he was investigating Nazi war crimes.

"He was committed to working for justice," she said, "even though the events had happened many, many years before."

Though Flight 103 crashed 22 years ago this month, family members are still "holding people's feet to the fire," Bernstein said.

Frank Duggan, president of Victims of Pan Am 103 Inc., did not lose a loved one in the crash, but he praised the dedication of the family members. Still, he said, recent developments have pained them.

"It's easy to say, move on, but you can't move on when the scab keeps getting ripped off," he said.

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