Justice not served: Those involved with Pan Am Flight 103 still troubled by al-Megrahi’s release
UPDATED: Nov. 9, 2011, 8:22 p.m.
Editor’s note: This week marks SU’s annual Remembrance Week, during which the campus comes together to remember the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing.
For a moment, there seemed to be an inkling of justice.
No one person can justify the deaths of 270 lives, including 35 Syracuse University students, in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. But if anything came close to sealing the wounds of losing a loved one more than a decade after the bombing, it was the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
‘Some thought that would never happen,’ said Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 group. ‘It was quite a relief that at least they convicted one person.’
It took 12 years for families to feel that sense of relief. Two were indicted in 1991, but the trial, in the Netherlands under the Scottish legal system, started in 2000.
Then-Libyan leader Moammar al Gadhafi wouldn’t turn over al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah for the trial until he was convinced there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them, Duggan said.
In 2001, al-Megrahi was found guilty. The evidence was circumstantial. No one testified to seeing al-Megrahi and Fhimah put the bomb on the plane, Duggan said, but many cases are solved with circumstantial evidence.
The Scottish and U.S. governments worked to study evidence from the site of the bombing, said Brian Murtagh, then a Justice Department prosecutor. Pieces of cloth, metal from the aircraft and the remains of the suitcase that held the bomb were recovered, he said. A storekeeper in Malta said he sold the clothes that were recovered from the site to al-Megrahi. A double agent stepped forward with testimony, although Murtagh said it was later discovered that the witness exaggerated his involvement.
Fhimah, on the other hand, was free to return to Libya. The Scottish court didn’t think there was enough evidence to convict both individuals, Duggan said.
‘This is a very, very small measure of justice that only one guy was convicted in a massive state-sponsored act of murder,’ he said.
Few people were convinced of Fhimah’s innocence. Most believed Gadhafi was involved.
‘The man had a history of supporting terrorists and terrorist activity for years,’ Duggan said. ‘This is what he did. This is what he and his people did.’
For some families, al-Megrahi’s conviction was the best news they had heard in 12 years. In 2002, al-Megrahi spent his first night in prison, where he was given a minimum 27-year sentence.
Al-Megrahi appealed, but his request was denied, Duggan said, adding that he dropped his second appeal for unspecified reasons.
In 2009, justice was lost. After al-Megrahi was diagnosed with an advanced stage of prostate cancer, he was released on compassionate grounds, serving eight years of his sentence.
‘It was appalling to me,’ said Susan Cohen, mother of SU victim Theodora. ‘But by then I had been used to the fact that justice didn’t matter and the families didn’t matter.’
Al-Megrahi was given three months to live, but remains alive more than two years after his release.
Grief turned into anger. Some were devastated and others outraged, Duggan said. What made it worse was ‘the clear political and diplomatic involvement in that decision,’ he said.
Britain thought there would be damage to trade relations with Libya if al-Megrahi wasn’t released, he said. BP was concerned it would lose its $900 million bid for oil rights in Libya.
For Cohen, there was always an underlying sense of skepticism. She didn’t know how, but there was a fear that al-Megrahi would be released early.
‘If they hadn’t done it one way, they would have done it in another,’ she said.
Cohen wanted al-Megrahi to be tried in the United States, where she thought he had a chance for the death penalty. It was an American plane, she said, and most of the passengers were Americans.
Murtagh, who worked on the case for more than two decades, said if al-Megrahi had been tried in the United States, it would have been less likely for him to be released on compassionate grounds.
‘A life sentence in the federal system means a life sentence,’ he said.
Through all the conflict, as well as the confusion of a foreign legal system, families of the victims wanted to be involved. The Justice Department funded flights to Scotland and provided access to al-Megrahi and Fhimah’s trial, and closed-circuit televisions were set up in New York. But there was an easier way to reach all 270 families.
William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at SU, said law professor Donna Artz created a password-protected website for the families. Artz, who has since died, worked with law school students and faculty to update the site with summaries of transcripts from the trial, Banks said. Families were encouraged to ask questions on the website, he said.
‘It was cathartic, in a way, to be able to feel that you were part of a process that was trying to move toward some sort of justice,’ Banks said.
The law faculty and students were recognized for their efforts by the State Department, said Daan Braveman, associate dean of the College of Law at the time. The department praised the school for a job well done and asked if it was interested in maintaining a similar website for a different trial, he said.
‘In 2000, it was a big deal to have a website like that. It was literally the first time this had ever been done,’ he said. ‘It was a way for them to keep in touch with what was going on in the other side of the world.’
After 23 years, the case remains open. Few have details on how the crime was orchestrated. Gadhafi died at the hands of his own people in October and al-Megrahi still claims his innocence.
The Scottish and U.S. governments continue to investigate the case with the hope of finding more people involved. Someone had to make the bomb; someone else must have delivered it, Murtagh said.
Closure may be impossible, he said, but people still want to know what happened.
‘Trials are an imperfect vehicle to bring justice in a sense of making the victims whole,’ Murtagh said. ‘We can never make them whole. We can never bring back the decedent.’
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