On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a bomb in the luggage compartment. All 259 people aboard and eleven people on the ground were killed. In 1991, after a massive international criminal investigation, Libyan intelligence officers Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were charged with the deaths. Their motive was alleged to be retribution for the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi refused to turn over the suspects to U.S. or United Kingdom authorities. What followed was eight years of U.S. sanctions against Libya and negotiations involving the U.S., Libya, the U.K., Saudi Arabia and the United Nations in an attempt to bring the suspects to justice. In March, 1999 they were finally turned over to authorities in the Netherlands, where they were tried by a Scottish tribunal. The trial began May 3, 2000 and on January 31, 2001 the three judges acquitted Fhimah and convicted Megrahi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he serve 20 years before being considered for release. Megrahi’s appeal hearing, the first U.K. judicial hearing ever broadcast publicly, ended with a dismissal.
The government of Libya eventually paid billions of dollars to the victims’ families in order to settle civil lawsuits. After a criminal conviction of willful misconduct regarding its security services, Pan Am was also found civilly liable for the deaths. See, e.g., Pescatore v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 887 F. Supp. 71 (E.D.N.Y. 1995), aff’d and remanded, 97 F.3d 1 (2d Cir. 1996).
In 2009, Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds after it was found he suffered from terminal prostate cancer. He returned to Libya and as of this writing is still alive. The recent Wikileaks scandal has revealed information indicating that Libya had threatened harsh reprisal against the U.K. if Megrahi died in prison.
Volume 36, Issues 2 & 3 of the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law (“Terrorism on Trial”) features multiple articles examining the Lockerbie trial.