WASHINGTON — A boast from Libya's defected justice minister that he can prove that Moammar Gadhafi ordered the 1988 bombing of a U.S. jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, stirred hope among families of the 270 dead that the rogue dictator might be held accountable someday.
"This is not surprising," said Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein, who lost her husband, Michael, when Pan Am Flight 103 blew apart. "We always suspected that it was Gadhafi. Nobody does anything there — before last week, switch to Word anyway — without his approval."
Pointing to the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco and 1980s attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports, all attributed to Libya, Bernstein said that Gadhafi's massacres of his countrymen in recent days should leave U.S. and foreign governments red-faced about restoring normal diplomatic ties with Libya in recent years.
"The idea that ... this guy was anything but a murderer and a thug is just beyond me," she said. "Of course, this is the kind of person who wouldn't think twice about killing his own people."
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The Libyan justice minister, Judge Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, surfaced outside Tripoli in recent days and said he'd turned against Gadhafi. While declaring to reporters that he can prove Gadhafi's complicity in the bombing, he offered no proof.
"I'd love to see the proof," said Frank Duggan, the president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc., which represents 800 survivors of those killed. "And I'd love to see it before someone kills the guy (Abdel-Jalil). His life is probably in danger."
Unraveling the bombing plot would culminate a wrenching odyssey for family members.
A presidential commission that investigated the bombing during the administration of President George H.W. Bush disbanded with suspicions that Iran or Syria had carried it out. Scottish investigators, however, found a tiny timer, traceable to a Swiss company that had sold the device solely to Libya.
In 2002, Libya agreed to a $2.7 billion deal that ultimately gave each victim's estate $10 million in phased payments timed to the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions and the removal of Libya from the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism. A year later, Gadhafi's government formally took responsibility for the bombing in a letter to the United Nations and deposited the money in a Swiss bank account. Last year, however, Gadhafi told an Australian television company that the payments merely resolved a diplomatic row and weren't an admission of guilt.
Two Libyans ultimately were prosecuted on charges of carrying out the bombing.
Kathy Tedeschi, 61, of Columbia, S.C., whose husband, Bill Daniels, died in the bombing, flew to the Netherlands four times to observe their trial. One was acquitted. The court sentenced the other, Abdel Baset al Megrahi, an intelligence officer, to life in prison in 2001.
But in 2009, with Britain's acquiescence, Megrahi was freed and returned home on the grounds that he was near death from cancer.
Before his release, nearly two dozen family members of the Pan Am victims pleaded in vain for a reversal of the decision in a teleconference with the British Embassy and the Scottish justice minister, who'd concluded that Megrahi had three months to live.
Libyans celebrated in the streets when Megrahi returned home, apparently in better health than depicted. He's still alive.
Tedeschi "sat and cried in front of the television the whole day," Duggan recalled.
The London-based Website WikiLeaks recently released secret diplomatic cables showing that Britain's Foreign Office secretly coached Libya on how to win Megrahi's compassionate release.
Bernstein, whose husband was an assistant deputy director of the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, charged that it's all about oil.
"The Brits have been awful ... because they were so anxious to get BP back in there," she said of the giant British petroleum company that's on the verge of resuming oil-drilling operations in Libya.
"I would like the governments of the world that have been dealing with the Libyans to say, was this worth it? Was it worth it to have rapprochement with this guy? I don't think so. What was at the bottom of it? Was it a desire to promote a better way of life for the Libyan people? No. It had to do with oil."
Duggan noted that the United Nations put Libya on its peace council in the last year, even though figures in Gadhafi's government have all but conceded guilt in the Pan Am case on multiple occasions.
He said that Gadhafi's rambling tirade against protesters Monday was "almost laughable, except that he's got so much blood on his hands. It's not like he's the crazy uncle in the attic. He's a monster."
Tedeschi, who's now remarried, said she'd be thrilled if Abdel-Jalil really had the goods on Gadhafi.
Then she added bitterly: "I just wondered if this meant that the United Kingdom and the Scottish government were going to try and convict Gadhafi and let him free on compassionate grounds, too."
(Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Beyida, Libya.)
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