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For families affected by Lockerbie, an agonizing wait for justice

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In the days after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish countryside, Paul Hudson sifted through fields of wreckage, looking for any trace of his teenage daughter.

He knew Melina was gone. No one survived what was then one of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks, killing 270 just before Christmas in 1988, when a bomb exploded on a plane heading from London to New York above from Lockerbie, Scotland.

Hudson then swore to protect Melina’s memory. He lobbied authorities in the Lockerbie countryside to store the debris in a warehouse, rather than dumping it, so grieving families could collect the victims’ belongings. There he found one of Melina’s notebooks, with a message scribbled between doodles on the cover: No one dies unless forgotten.

“It was a call to action,” said Hudson, 75. “How could I let it go with that staring at me in his writing?”

Thirty-four years later, he was sitting in a Washington courtroom, waiting for one of the men involved in Melina’s murder to make his first appearance before a judge. Decades of investigations into the Lockerbie bombing ultimately resulted in the detention of Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi, a Libyan citizen whom the United States has accused of building the bomb.

Relatives of the victims filled the pews. They had watched for decades as justice seemed to come closer and then fall out of reach. Some have taken it upon themselves to find out details of what happened and present them to investigators. Some died waiting for answers. Children who remembered their dead parents poorly or not at all sought ways to honor the mother or father they never knew.

In 1991, the United States and Britain announced criminal charges against two other suspects: Libyan intelligence officers Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. But Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – whose inner circle was likely involved, investigators say – refused for years to hand them over. Eventually, a Scottish court located in the Netherlands was able to try the two men. Megrahi was sentenced to 27 years in prison and Fhimah was acquitted.

On Monday afternoon, the families of the victims saw what looked like another chance for justice: the alleged bomb-maker, dressed in a green detention suit, limps into the magistrate’s courtroom Robin M. Meriweather.

Hudson clutched a photo of Melina in his lap. She had studied abroad in England. “She was a very beautiful and strong-willed 16-year-old girl,” he said. “She was coming back for Christmas vacation.”

Nearby was Stephanie Bernstein, 71, who lost her husband, Michael, in the attack. She too was looking directly at Mas’ud.

“It was surreal,” Bernstein said. “I don’t know what I expected, but he was where he needed to be, and that’s what we’ve been working towards for a long time.”

Mas’ud’s arrest, she hoped, would remind Americans of an event that has faded from memory.

Explosives hidden in the baggage compartment of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet detonated it “almost instantly”, according to federal investigators. Witnesses described seeing parts of the plane falling from the sky. A piece quickly exploded on impact, leaving a 40-foot-deep crater where houses stood. Only the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 caused more deaths among American citizens.

“I hope people will understand how this act of mass murder could have happened,” she said. “Two hundred and seventy people, including 190 Americans, have just been blown out of the sky.”

Dozens of relatives of the victims called to attend the hearing. One was Mary Kay Stratis, who lost her husband, Elia, in the attack.

Elia was on a business trip to London. He was supposed to return to the United States the day after the bombing, but he rebooked Flight 103 to spend more vacation time with his children.

“I saw them graduating from elementary school without their dad, then high school, college and post-graduate degrees,” Stratis said, “and walked them down the aisle without their dad.”

Mas’ud’s arrest was helping to ease years of angst, she said, but she feared the case would go down the drain one way or another. She had already been disappointed.

Al-Megrahi’s 27-year prison sentence, for example, ended prematurely. He was released in 2009 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and died three years later.

“Justice had been given to us, but it was taken away from us,” Stratis said. “We felt it slip away.”

Mas’ud is the first person prosecuted in the United States for the attack 34 years ago. Years ago, the Justice Department indicted Megrahi and Fhimah for the murders, but Libyan officials never agreed to allow them to appear in US court. Officials have so far declined to say what deal they reached with Libya to bring Mas’ud to the United States.

Victoria Cummock, whose husband John died in the blast, said she was unsure if she would ever see a suspect in a US courtroom. Over the decades, she said, she repeatedly shared information with the Justice Department and successive U.S. attorneys general. Still, Cummock said she heard nothing of the investigation and felt betrayed.

“He was the love of my life,” she said, “and I promised him that I would make sure, until my last breath, that I was going to do what I could to get justice. .”

For Hudson, Monday’s hearing did not go as planned.

The judge informed Mas’ud of his rights and the charges against him, which could result in a life sentence. Prosecutors surprised the families by announcing that they would not pursue the death penalty. (Their argument: capital punishment was not an option for Mas’ud’s 1988 charges.)

Hudson wasn’t sure how he should feel. He had created an archive in memory of Melina. His notebook was stored near their home in Albany.

He had been president of Families of Pan Am 103/Lockerbie, holding press conferences to keep the names of the victims in the national consciousness. He brought a banner of all their faces to the courthouse. He had testified on Capitol Hill. He had met with President George HW Bush, urging him to invest more in the Lockerbie investigation. He had dreamed of a day like this.

Yet he felt no hatred towards the man in front of him. Hudson noticed that Mas’ud looked aged. He had a white beard and walked with a limp.

“I didn’t really feel sorry for him,” Hudson said. “But I think he’s someone who needs to realize the enormity of what he’s done.”

Maybe he had been a pawn. Libya, he said, appeared to obstruct the investigation for years. Now a suspect was in court on US soil.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Hudson said.

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