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The man accused of the Lockerbie plane bombing makes a U.S. courtroom appearance

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The man accused of making a bomb that detonated over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 has finally appeared in an American courtroom. Family members of many of the 270 victims are closely watching the case as it moves through the justice system.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson followed the court proceeding today, and she's here to talk more about it now. So, Carrie, who is this alleged bomb maker and why did it take so many years to prosecute him?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: His name is Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, and he was detained in Libya for another crime related to bomb making when he allegedly confessed his role in this attack on Pan Am Flight 103. That flight carried 190 Americans. Many of them were college students who were returning home for the holidays in December 1988. The FBI finally took custody of this man over the weekend, but the circumstances under which he was turned over remain pretty murky right now.

SUMMERS: OK. So, Carrie, what happened when he appeared in federal court today?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the magistrate judge advised Mas'ud of his rights. He said he didn't want to talk until he saw his attorney. He wants to hire a private lawyer. And the judge is giving him a week to figure that out. The judge also read the criminal charges against him. One of them is destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. And that charge carries the possibility of life in prison. The prosecutor, Erik Kenerson, says countless families have never recovered from their loss that day in 1988 and they may never recover.

American officials say the defendant was a longtime member of the Libyan intelligence service. And here in the U.S., it seems he's being held in the detention center in Alexandria, Va., just across the river from Washington, D.C. Law enforcement officials at that facility are familiar with high-security defendants, including people like Russian operative Maria Butina and terrorism convict Zacarias Moussaoui.

SUMMERS: This is a major development in a crime that is now nearly 34 years old. So how are family members of those who were killed reacting to the news of this arrest?

JOHNSON: These families have been very active over the years. They've been in touch with law enforcement, especially since 2020, when then-Attorney General Bill Barr announced these charges. Kara Weipz lost her brother, Rick Monetti, on that Pan Am flight. Here's what she told Weekend ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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KARA WEIPZ: This was paramount to us, that he be tried in the United States. This means so much to the families, so much to my family, so much to me to know that justice is going to be served in our country under our laws.

JOHNSON: And, you know, Juana, for many of these families, it is going to be easier for them to actually attend court proceedings or follow news coverage from here in Washington, D.C. The only other person convicted in this attack was tried in the Netherlands. He died several years ago. So this may be one of the last chances at justice these families receive.

SUMMERS: Carrie, in the time that we have left, this bombing remains the deadliest terror attack in British history. But what does this case mean for a generation of Americans?

JOHNSON: You know, it took years of painstaking work and international coordination. It changed the way the Justice Department interacts with families of crime victims. Here's what Kara Weipz says about that.

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WEIPZ: We have kept this on the forefront of six administrations. And it goes to show we don't forget. Our government doesn't forget, and they hold people accountable. And it sends a very strong message.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.