published Monday, May 21st, 2012

Families of Lockerbie victims still seek answers

This Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 file photo shows Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, center, being helped down the airplane steps on his arrival at an airport in Tripoli, Libya. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was the only person ever convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, died Sunday May 20, 2012 nearly three years after he was released from a Scottish prison to the outrage of the relatives of the attack's 270 victims. He was 60. (AP Photo)
This Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 file photo shows Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, center, being helped down the airplane steps on his arrival at an airport in Tripoli, Libya. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was the only person ever convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, died Sunday May 20, 2012 nearly three years after he was released from a Scottish prison to the outrage of the relatives of the attack's 270 victims. He was 60. (AP Photo)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MEERA SELVA and VERENA DOBNIK

NEW YORK (AP) — The death of the only man convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing has left some victims' relatives relieved and others raising questions about his guilt and whether others went unpunished.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence official died Sunday of cancer, his family said. His death renewed pleas from some victims' relatives for further investigation of the bombing.

"It closes a chapter but it doesn't close the book. 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.

Al-Megrahi was convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town on Dec. 21, 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, many of them New York and New Jersey residents. Syracuse University in central New York was particularly hard hit: 35 students on the way home for Christmas break died in the bombing.

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

The families had 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 a Scottish prison in 2009 on humanitarian grounds — he was supposedly close to death — they were outraged, especially after al-Megrahi lived far longer than the few months the doctors had predicted.

Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose daughter was among the Syracuse University students on the flight, said al-Megrahi deserved no compassion.

"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 Sunday. "He should have died in the Scottish prison. He should have been tried in the United States and faced capital punishment."

The views of other victims' families on al-Megrahi's role in the bombing vary widely.

"Megrahi is the 271st victim of Lockerbie," said David Ben-Ayreah, who represents some British families of victims. He attended the trial and still believes al-Megrahi was not responsible for the bombing.

But Eileen Walsh, a Glen Rock, N.J., resident whose father, brother and sister died in the explosion said she was "very happy" to hear about al-Megrahi's death. She had just attended Mass on Sunday when she received numerous text messages.

"I'm glad he's gone, but there's no real closure. There's nothing but a bad taste in my mouth," she said.

"My mother died of cancer in 2004, and because of him, three of the most important people in her life weren't there to help her in her time of need," Walsh said.

Al-Megrahi's co-defendant was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi insisted he also had nothing to do with the bombing. Those who believe him got a boost in 2007 when a three-year investigation by a Scottish tribunal found that new evidence — and old evidence withheld from trial — suggested that al-Megrahi "may have suffered a miscarriage of justice." Its 800-page report prompted an appeal on al-Megrahi's 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.

Still protesting his innocence, al-Megrahi dropped the appeal in a bid to clear the path for his release on compassionate grounds. He flew home to a hero's welcome in 2009.

Al-Megrahi's death should not be an excuse to stop trying to find out who was behind the bombing, Cohen said. She called on U.S. and British officials to "dig even deeper" into the case.

The Scottish government said Sunday that it will continue investigating the Lockerbie bombing.

Bert Ammerman of River Vale, N.J., lost his brother in the bombing. He blames the U.S. 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," Ammerman said. "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.

Jim Swire, whose 19-year-old daughter, Flora, died in the bombing, is a leading voice for some of the British families who believe al-Megrahi was innocent. Swire, who attended the trial in the Netherlands, asked for further inquiry from the Scottish government.

He said he saw al-Megrahi in December. "We talked as two old friends who were saying goodbye," he said.

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