(NEW YORK) — Federal prosecutors announced Monday they will not seek the death penalty against a Libyan intelligence officer accused of building the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 killing 270 people, including 190 Americans.
Some family members of those killed in the bombing were in the Washington, D.C., area federal courtroom Monday to watch the first federal hearing for suspect, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi.
The defendant was recently taken into custody by U.S. authorities and extradited to the United States over the weekend.
Mas’ud is the third individual charged in connection with the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 but the first to appear in an American courtroom.
“You have been charged by indictment with, in count one, destruction of aircraft resulting in death,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather said as she began to recite the three charges faced by Masud, who did not enter a plea.
While a conviction on any of the charges carries the possibility of the death penalty in 2022, federal prosecutor Erik Kenerson told Meriweather his office would not pursue it because the counts were not death-eligible in 1988 when the bombing occurred. “His actions killed all 259 passengers and crew on board the aircraft and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie,” Kenerson said in court. “Countless families have never fully recovered as a result of his actions and never will fully recover.”
A federal public defender represented Masud during the hearing, but asked for additional time for Mas’ud to hire his own attorney. “I cannot talk until I see my attorney,” Mas’ud said, speaking through an interpreter.
Mas’ud, who is being held without bail in a Virginia detention center, was given until Dec. 19 to arrange for his own attorney to represent him. A detention hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27.
Stephanie Bernstein of Jericho, New York, whose husband Michael was among those killed in the bombing, and Jeannine Boulanger of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, whose 29-year-old daughter Nicole was killed in the attack, were at the hearing.
“It wasn’t clear that ever, ever we could get him,” Bernstein told ABC News of Mas’ud, who has been in custody in Libya for several years.
She noted Libya does not have an extradition treaty with the United States and said she was surprised to hear from U.S. Department of Justice officials on Sunday that Mas’ud was in U.S. custody and headed to America to face justice.
“This would not have happened without the top levels of the government and their commitment to bringing this individual to justice,” Bernstein said.
Boulanger said she was also surprised by the news about Mas’ud and hopes he will be held accountable.
“It seems like yesterday, but it has dragged on and we have aged over the years,” Boulanger told Boston ABC affiliate WCVB.
The mid-air bombing
Pan Am Flight 103 exploded on Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, about 38 minutes after taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight, which originated in Frankfort, Germany, was heading to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and was to continue on to Detroit.
The bomb was allegedly built inside a Toshiba cassette recorder, placed in a Samsonite suitcase and surrounded by clothes, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. The explosive was detonated in the cargo hold of the 747 aircraft at an altitude of more than 31,000 feet. The blast ripped the aircraft into countless pieces that scattered across 840 square miles, nearly the entire width of Scotland.
Boulanger’s daughter and 34 other Syracuse University students returning home for the holidays after a semester studying abroad were among those who perished.
Citizens of 21 countries, including 43 from the United Kingdom, were aboard the doomed flight.
The probe of the terrorist attack quickly focused on Libya and its then-dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who had engaged in hostilities with the United States and its Western allies and was suspected in the April 5, 1986, bombing of the LaBelle Discotheque in West Berlin, Germany, in which two U.S. service members were killed and 229 people, including 79 Americans, were injured.
Two Libyan intelligence officers, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were charged in 1991 by U.S. prosecutors with plotting and carrying out the bombing, but Gadhafi would not allow them to be turned over to U.S. authorities. Following years of negotiations, Libya turned the suspects over in 1999 to be tried by Scottish judges in the Netherlands.
In 2001, Megrahi was convicted of his role in the bombing and sentenced to life in prison. However, he was released in 2009 because he had cancer and died in Libya in 2012.
Fhimah was acquitted.
In 1996, families of those killed in the bombing sued the government of Libya for its role in the attack. Seven years later, Gadhafi agreed to settle the case for $2.7 billion.
About five years after the 2011 collapse of the Gadhafi regime and the execution of the dictator by Libyan rebels, U.S. officials learned Mas’ud had been arrested and that during an interrogation by a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012 implicated himself in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, according to the Department of Justice.
During the interrogation, Mas’ud allegedly claimed the bombing had been ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gadhafi had thanked him and others after the attack, U.S. officials said.
Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the charges against Mas’ud in 2020 in his final week at the Justice Department.
Under instructions from two alleged Libyan intelligence operatives, including Megrahi, Mas’ud allegedly built the Pan Am 103 bomb in the winter of 1988 in a hotel room on the island of Malta, hiding the device in a medium-sized suitcase and setting a timer to go off 11 hours later on Dec. 21, according to the criminal affidavit filed by federal prosecutors.
Mas’ud allegedly gave the suitcase to Megrahi and another Libyan operative, who both worked at the Malta airport, according to the affidavit. One of the operatives placed the suitcase on an airport conveyor belt and it was smuggled onto a flight bound for Frankfurt, where it was transferred to Pan Am Flight 103 as a piece of unaccompanied luggage, according to the affidavit.
Bert Ammerman, whose brother, Tom Ammerman, of New Jersey, was killed in the bombing, told ABC News that his initial reaction to Mas’ud being brought to the United States was one of “satisfaction.”
“Then a shrug again,” Ammerman said. “And then the most important: All right, what’s next? I’ve learned over 34 years we got the information and now we’re going to wait another year, two or three years for something else. I want answers now sooner than later.”
Ammerman called on President Joe Biden to provide details of the attack and to say if other counties were involved in the bombing plot, specifically Iran.
“Is our government going to release that Iran was involved in this? Because if they do, then they got to do something and they didn’t want to release information 34 years ago because they didn’t want to deal with this,” Ammerman said, adding that he has been told by an FBI agent and a Scottish intelligence agent that Iran was involved in the attack.
Ammerman said he mostly hopes he’ll finally get justice for his brother.
“Tommy was one of the nicest human beings you could ever meet,” Ammerman said. “Everybody loved Tom. Tom just wanted people to be happy and comfortable. He had two daughters at the time, six and four, a wife. He was 36, young. He didn’t get to live his life.”
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