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Pan Am 103 : Controversy still surrounds Lockerbie trial after al-Megrahi’s death

For some, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s death on May 20 represented an ending. For others, it was only a chapter of a much longer legacy born of a tragic event.

Al-Megrahi was the only person convicted of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in December 1988. Thirty-five of the 270 passengers killed over Lockerbie, Scotland, were Syracuse University students who were returning to the United States after spending a semester studying abroad.

‘The Lockerbie event, from the get-go, was involved in all sorts of conspiracy theories,’ said Mehrzed Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at SU.

The Lockerbie trial in which al-Megrahi was convicted was a complicated endeavor for the Scottish justice system. Many individuals were dissatisfied with the verdict.

Despite al-Megrahi’s conviction and the suspicion cast on the Gadhafi administration during the trial, Boroujerdi said, people still believe the terrorist attack was the work of Libyans hired by the Iranian government. Iran was punishing the United States for an attack on an Iranian airline in July of the previous year, according to the theory.

‘Many Libyans thought that it was an unjust accusation,’ Boroujerdi said. ‘The case was not treated with the level of sensitivity as it was treated here. But in light of everything that has happened in the country, in Libya, most of the public are happy to put this chapter behind them.’

The controversy didn’t end with the Lockerbie trial. Al-Megrahi’s release from prison eight years into his life sentence sparked another heated debate.

When Kenny MacAskill, cabinet secretary for justice in the government of Scotland, learned that al-Megrahi was suffering from terminal prostate cancer, he had Scottish Prison Service doctors examine him.

The doctors predicted al-Megrahi would live no longer than three more months, so MacAskill determined it would be appropriate for al-Megrahi to return to his home in Libya to die. Al-Megrahi was released from Scottish prison on compassionate grounds in August 2009.

‘Mr. Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days,’ MacAskill wrote in a prepared explanation of his decision.

The decision was widely disputed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the anniversary of al-Megrahi’s release, Clinton prepared a statement to illustrate the distaste the country felt about the early release.

‘We maintain that al-Megrahi should serve out the entirety of his sentence in prison in Scotland. We have and will continue to reiterate this position to the Scottish and Libyan authorities,’ the statement read.

Jaime Bernstein, a senior chemistry and Spanish dual major, said she agrees that al-Megrahi should have served his life sentence. She said his early release from prison also gave him an extra three years of freedom.

‘It seemed like he got let off the hook,’ Bernstein said. ‘That was probably an easier death in life than he would have received in prison.’

Bernstein was one of 35 seniors chosen to be a Remembrance Scholar to commemorate the lives lost in Pan Am Flight 103. Her dissatisfaction with al-Megrahi’s early release did not deter Bernstein from highly valuing the Remembrance Scholarship as an opportunity to learn more about the tragic piece of history.

She said she felt it was important to educate students on what happened in Lockerbie years ago and effectively allow the legacies of those killed to live on.

The death of al-Megrahi does not represent an end to the Lockerbie story, Bernstein said, but rather a reminder of the legacy it has left.

Although Bernstein learned a lot about the bombing as a result of her scholarship, she felt odd when it was brought up in the news as a result of al-Megrahi’s death.

‘It makes it very real,’ Bernstein said. ‘It’s not just something in the past. It’s still affecting us in the present.’

cedebais@syr.edu 

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