Lockerbie bombing suspect charged in US court

Abu Agila Mohammad Masud is accused of making the bomb that downed Pan Am Flight 103

Paul Hudson, whose daughter Melina was one of the victims in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, holds up a banner with pictures of other victims outside the federal court. Getty / AFP
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Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, the Libyan citizen accused of making the bomb that downed Pan AM Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, was charged in a US court on Monday.

All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed when a bomb exploded aboard the Pan Am flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Detroit via London, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in British history.

Eleven people were killed on the ground by falling debris.

Most of the victims on the flight were American, and the US government filed charges against Masud in 2020 but were only able to secure his extradition from Libya on Sunday.

Abu Agila Mohammad Masud is seen in this Alexandria Sheriff's Office photograph. Handout via Reuters

Dressed in a forest-green prison jump suit with “Alexandria inmate” printed on the back, Masud limped into Judge Robin Meriweather’s courtroom in Washington.

Bald with a thick grey beard, the elderly Masud appeared to struggle at times to hear the Arabic interpreter through his headset during the proceedings. Prosecutors did not reveal his age.

Masud was charged with two counts of destruction of an aircraft resulting in death and one count of destruction of a vehicle used in foreign commerce.

Those charges carry the possibility of life in prison or the death penalty; however, the prosecution said it would not be pursuing capital punishment because at the time of the bombing in 1988, it was not in federal use.

Family members of some of those killed 34 years ago sat in the courtroom, holding hands at times as Ms Meriweather went through the proceedings.

Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband Michael Bernstein was killed in the bombing, attended the hearing with her daughter Sara, who was just seven years old when her father died.

She said she felt a "tremendous amount of satisfaction" seeing Masud in court, as he is the first person believed to be responsible for the death of her husband to be tried on US soil.

“He's an old man who murdered a tremendous number of people and it's what should have happened a long time ago, that we had him in our custody,” Ms Bernstein said.

"The law sometimes sleeps, but it never dies."

Paul Hudson, whose 16-year-old daughter Melina was killed in the attack, told The National before the hearing that he was “surprised and somewhat relieved that this has finally happened”.

Stephanie Bernstein, widow of Michael Bernstein, who died in the bombing of Pan Am 103, at the court with her daughter, Sara. EPA

Among the dead were 35 students from Syracuse University in New York state who were returning from studying abroad.

Syracuse University chancellor Kent Syverud called Masud's extradition a “significant milestone in a decades-long process to bring those responsible for this despicable act to justice”.

The circumstances under which Masud was originally taken into custody were not immediately clear.

“The United States has taken custody of alleged Pan Am Flight 103 bomb maker Abu Agila Mohammad Masud,” a Department of Justice representative confirmed to The National.

Only one other person has been convicted for the bombing: former Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet Al Megrahi spent seven years in a Scottish prison after his conviction in 2001.

He died in Libya in 2012, always maintaining his innocence.

The investigation into the bombing was hampered by a lack physical evidence, said Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former FBI assistant director who oversaw the probe until 1991.

“Everything was blown up,” Mr Revell told The National. “We had to start without any physical evidence immediately and we were able to ultimately dig down and come up with some physical evidence that led us to the original arrests.”

He said investigators did not focus on Masud until much later, but the fact that he had been taken into custody showed the long reach of the US justice system.

“This should be able to close out the case and the effort to bring closure to this terrible tragedy.”

Scottish authorities commended the US for their joint pursuit of justice.

“Scottish prosecutors and officers of Police Scotland have remained committed to the case and for decades have worked closely with US Department of Justice attorneys and FBI case agents on the investigation,” said Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain.

Updated: December 13, 2022, 12:29 AM