Lockerbie bombing suspect appears in US court, will not face death penalty
More than three decades after a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board, a former Libyan intelligence official accused of making explosives has emerged. appeared Monday in federal court, charged with acts of international terrorism.
The extradition of Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi marked a major milestone in the decades-long investigation into the incident. attack killed 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground.
His arrival in Washington sets the stage for one of the Justice Department’s more significant terrorism prosecutions in recent memory.
“Although nearly 34 years have passed since the defendant’s actions, many families have never calmed down,” the assistant said. WE Attorney Erik Kenerson said in a trial with the participation of relatives of the victims.
The Justice Department announced Sunday that Mas’ud had been arrested in the United States, two years after revealing it had charged him in connection with the explosion.
two other Libyan Intelligence officials have been charged in the United States for their alleged involvement in the attack, but Mas’ud is the first defendant to appear before a U.S. court to be prosecuted.
The Pan Am flight to New York exploded on Lockerbie less than an hour after taking off from London on December 21, 1988. Citizens from 21 countries were killed. Of the 190 Americans on board, 35 were Syracuse University students who flew home for Christmas after a semester abroad.
The bombing exposed the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11, 2001, attacks and triggered global investigations and punitive sanctions. Some relatives of the victim who were unsure of the criminal case to be brought described the surreal news that Mas’ud was finally in US custody.
Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband Michael is a Justice Department prosecutor returning from the UK in a Pan Am 103, said she felt “extremely satisfied”. She said her husband had prosecuted the Nazis and felt strongly that there was no statute of limitations for murder.
“He hung a fortune cookie adage on his doorstep that said, ‘The law sometimes rests, but it never dies.’ This shows that the law never dies, that the US government will take care of its citizens in life and death and that the government has not forgotten,” Bernstein said.
Outside court on Monday, Paul Hudson carried a photo of his daughter, Melina, a 16-year-old student who had just returned for Christmas from an exchange program. He recalled that after the accident, her belongings were scattered throughout the Lockerbie countryside. The family received her passport and notebook back.
“And on the cover of the notebook it says ‘Nobody dies unless they’re forgotten,’ and I’ve tried to live up to that,” he said. Memories of his daughter are “everyday” and “at this time of year, it just gets stronger.”
The bearded and bald Mas’ud, dressed in a green prison uniform, limped to the defense desk. He occasionally speaks through an interpreter, and federal defenders representing him at the hearing say he wants to be represented by attorneys of his own choosing.
At one point, as the charges were being discussed, Mas’ud said in Arabic that he could not speak until he had seen his lawyer.
A remand hearing has been scheduled for the end of the month.
The announcement of the charges against Mas’ud on December 21, 2020, came on the 32nd anniversary of the bombings and on the final days of the term of then-Attorney General William Barr. At the time, Mas’ud was being held in Libya.
The announcement was a career turning point for Barr, who during his early stint as attorney general in the early 1990s announced criminal charges against two other Libyan intelligence officials.
The Libyan government was initially hesitant to hand over those two men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, before handing them over for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands as part of a special agreement.
In Mas’ud’s case, a new unsealed indictment by the Justice Department includes three charges related to the explosion, including the destruction of an aircraft, which resulted in death.
Prosecutors told the court they would not pursue the death penalty because it did not apply to specific crimes at the time of the bombing.
US officials did not say how Mas’ud was detained by the US, but late last month local Libyan media reported that Mas’ud had been abducted by armed men. on November 16 from his residence in the capital, Tripoli. That report cited a statement by the family accusing Tripoli authorities of being silent before the abduction.
A breakthrough in the Justice Department investigation came when US officials in 2017 received a transcript of an interview that Mas’ud, a longtime explosives expert for the intelligence agency, received. of Libya, presented to Libyan law enforcement in 2012 after being taken into custody following the fall of the government of the country’s leader, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
In that interview, US officials said, Mas’ud admitted to making the bomb in the Pan Am attack and collaborating with two other masterminds to carry out the attack.
He also said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gadhafi thanked him and other team members after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit.
That affidavit said Mas’ud told Libyan law enforcement that he had flown to Malta to meet al-Megrahi and Fhimah. According to the document, he gave Fhimah a Samsonite medium-sized suitcase containing a bomb, which was then instructed to time the device to explode exactly 11 hours later. He then flew to Tripoli, the FBI said.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in the Netherlands while Fhimah was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison, but Scottish authorities released him on humanitarian grounds in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in Tripoli, still protesting his innocence.