Lockerbie bomber's release decried
Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi holds his prisoner release papers as he walks toward the airplane at Glasgow International Airport, Glasgow Scotland bound for Tripoli, yesterday.
Beth Ann Johnson
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Carole Johnson felt pain, but not shock.
The only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed her 21-year-old daughter and 269 others, was released yesterday from a Scottish prison due to a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer.
"It's nothing that's not predictable. But, nevertheless, it's extremely hurtful, frustrating, angering. You name the emotion, it's there," said Mrs. Johnson, a retired nurse from Hempfield.
She isn't convinced that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who served eight years of a 20-years-to-life sentence, faces imminent death, which was the legal basis for his "compassionate release."
"Needless to say, we will be keeping a very close eye on just how sick he is," she said.
Mr. al-Megrahi, a former mid-level Libyan intelligence agent, climbed out of a prison van and walked unassisted up the steps of a Libyan jet in Glasgow. Through an attorney he reasserted his innocence and expressed sympathy for the victims' families.
President Barack Obama called the decision to release him a mistake and warned Libya not to give him a hero's welcome. But in Tripoli he was greeted by thousands of cheering youth and left the plane with a son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. It was Mr. Gadhafi who had handed Mr. al-Megrahi over to Scottish authorities to end years of sanctions from the West, but he had also lobbied for his release.
The Johnsons believe that Mr. Gadhafi ordered the bombing.
On the night of Dec. 21, 1988, the Pan Am 747 exploded, killing all 259 people on board and 11 in the village below. Until Sept. 11, 2001, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. civilians.
Mr. Al-Megrahi, 57, was convicted by a Scottish court in 2001. Glenn Johnson, Mrs. Johnson's husband, attended his trial and served eight years as chairman of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 support and advocacy group. He said at the time that the sentence was too light for the murder of 270 people.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill made the decision to release him, citing medical evidence and Scottish law.
"Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. ... However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power," Mr. MacAskill said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, expressed outrage.
"It's hard to comprehend the decision to release a terrorist on the premise he deserves compassion. This was a crime against humanity and not only did we feel this tragedy as a nation, but right here in southwestern Pennsylvania where we lost many family members," he said.
The Johnsons' daughter, Beth Johnson, was one of nine victims with ties to the Tri-State area.
She and her good friend and fellow Seton Hill College student, Elyse Saraceni, 20, of Salem, were returning from a semester at Regent's College in London.
Yesterday Seton Hill University offered prayers for the Johnson and Saraceni families.
"Beth Ann and Elyse were lovely young women -- bright, energetic and talented. No action of any government returns them to us or compensates us or their families for any loss," the university statement said.
Other victims from the area included: David Gould, 45, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public and International Affairs, was returning from East Africa where he was working to promote peace; Ann Gorgacz, 76, a widow from New Castle, was flying home from London with her daughters, Loretta Gorgacz, 46, and Linda Gordon, 39; Barry Valentino, Jr., 28, who grew up in Pleasant Hills where he had once been a volunteer firefighter, was headed back from vacation to a job in San Francisco; Army Maj. Charles McKee, 40, who grew up in Wilkinsburg and Trafford, was returning from duty in Beirut; and Valerie Canady, 25, a native of Morgantown, W.Va., was coming home for Christmas from her job in London.
The Johnsons have followed the al-Megrahi proceedings closely.
From the beginning the case has been tangled in the web of international politics.
"No one in our government wanted this to happen, to our knowledge," Mrs. Johnson said, singling out Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a longtime ally of the families.
"While the Scots have always been extremely compassionate toward the families, I think they really dropped the ball today. ... I don't feel that should have been one man's decision. I think the Scots are very compassionate people. Unfortunately, today I'm going to have to say that maybe that was their undoing."
The Johnsons have worked to maintain a good attitude, saying that otherwise the terrorists would win. They have two grown sons, one older and one younger than Beth Ann would be.
There are many memorials to their daughter, some funded by settlement money from the Libyan government. One of the most recent is a children's room in the new library in Scottdale, where she grew up. Another sends art and music therapy students from Seton Hill to work with children from impoverished communities, the sort of work that their musically gifted daughter hoped to do.
Beth Johnson played 14 instruments, and for years her mother hated the sight of her silenced piano. Now Beth Ann has a 14-year-old nephew, born years after her death, with similar musical gifts.
"He is playing her piano, and he is playing the songs that she played. It's very bittersweet, but it's so wonderful," she said.
"That's what I mean when I say that we look to our blessings."
First Published August 21, 2009 12:02 am