Prosecutors will not pursue death penalty for former Libyan intelligence officer Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir al Marimi.
More than three decades after a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone aboard, a former Libyan intelligence official accused of making the explosive appeared in federal court, charged with an act of international terrorism.
The extradition of Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir al Marimi marked a milestone in the decades-old investigation into the attack that killed 259 people aboard 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, countless families have never fully recovered," Assistant US Attorney Erik Kenerson said on Monday during a court proceeding attended by victims' relatives.
The Justice Department announced Sunday that Masud had been taken into US custody, two years after it revealed that it had charged him in connection with the explosion. Two other Libyan intelligence officials have been charged in the US for their alleged involvement in the attack, but Masud was the first defendant to appear in an American courtroom for prosecution.
The New York-bound Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after takeoff from London on December 21, 1988. Citizens from 21 countries were killed. Among the 190 Americans on board were 35 Syracuse University students flying home for Christmas after a semester abroad.
The bombing laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11, 2001, attacks and produced global investigations and punishing sanctions. Several victims' relatives who weren't sure a criminal case would ever be brought described as surreal the news that Masud was finally in American custody.
'Law never dies'
Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband, Michael, was a Justice Department prosecutor returning from England aboard Pan Am 103, said she felt a “tremendous amount of satisfaction.” She said her husband prosecuted Nazis and felt strongly that there was no statute of limitations for murder.
“He had a fortune cookie adage on his door that said, ‘The law sometimes sleeps, but it never dies.’ This shows that the law never dies, that the United States government is going to take care of its citizens in life and in death and that the government has not forgotten,” Bernstein said.
Outside the courthouse Monday, Paul Hudson carried a photograph of his daughter, Melina, a 16-year-old student who had been returning for the Christmas holidays from an exchange program. He recalled how, after the crash, her belongings were scattered around the Lockerbie countryside. The family did get back her passport and her notebook.
“And the notebook had, on the cover, the quote ‘No one dies unless they’re forgotten,’ and I've tried to live by that,” he said. Remembrances of his daughter are an “everyday thing” and “this time of year, it gets stronger.”
The bearded and balding Masud wore a green jail uniform, and walked with a halting gait to the defense table. He spoke occasionally through an interpreter, and the federal defenders who represented him at the hearing said he wanted to be represented by lawyers of his own choice.
At one point, as the charges were being discussed, Masud said that he could not speak until he saw his attorney.
A detention hearing was set for later in the month.
How did Masud end up in US custody? William Lawrence, a professor of political science and international affairs at American University, explains pic.twitter.com/yl2hsOnfUu— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) December 13, 2022
'Operation ordered by Libyan intelligence'
In that interview, US officials said, Masud admitted building the bomb in the Pan Am attack and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack. He also said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit.
That affidavit said Masud told Libyan law enforcement that he flew to Malta to meet Abdelbaset al Magrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. He handed Fhimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb, having already been instructed to set the timer so that the device would explode exactly 11 hours later, according to the document. 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 given a life sentence, 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.
READ MORE: Suspected Lockerbie bomber in US custody: Scotland