On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was flying from London to New York. It was carrying 243 passengers and 17 crew members. As the plane flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, a bomb in one of the suitcases exploded. There were no survivors.
In 1991, the murder charges against Megrahi, a senior Libyan intelligence agent, and Fhimah, the former manager of the Libyan Arab Airlines, represented an important turning point in the families’ pursuit of justice. It had taken three years and an expensive criminal investigation to pinpoint Libya as the perpetrator of the bombing. Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi, however, refused to turn over Fhimah and Megrahi.
A year after the indictments, Kaddafi began to pay the price for this refusal. UN Security Council sanctions shut down Libya’s air traffic with the rest of the world, froze its deposits in foreign banks, and choked off its imports of weapons and airplane parts. The U.S. Treasury Department enforced America’s own sanctions, including an almost total ban on travel to Libya by Americans.
The families of the victims were partly responsible for this and other actions taken by the U.S. government against Libya. The families convinced President Bush to create a commission to investigate the disaster; they helped pass the Aviation Security Act of 1990; they added millions of dollars to the reward program to capture terrorists; they helped win mandatory Security Council sanctions on Libya; they proved Pan Am’s “willful misconduct” in letting the bomb on board the plane; they erected a memorial cairn in Arlington; and they helped pass the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.
Perhaps most significantly, the families successfully fought for amendments to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that would allow suits for civil damages against state sponsors of terrorism. The family members then launched civil suits against Libya.
On May 29, 2002, in response to the sanctions and the lawsuits, Libya agreed to pay each family up to $10 million per victim, and to acknowledge its responsibility for the bombing. In return, Libya called for the U.N. and the U.S. to normalize their relations with Libya by lifting their respective sanctions against it. The terms of the settlement were as follows: If the U.N. dropped its sanctions against Libya, the families would receive $4 million per victim. If the U.S. dropped its sanctions, the families would receive an additional $4 million. If the U.S. removed Libya from its list of designated terror-sponsoring states, the families would receive a final $2 million. If the U.S. did not do anything, the families would still get an additional $1 million in addition to the $4 million they would have received when the U.N. dropped its sanctions.
On August 15, 2003, Libya’s Ambassador to the United Nations submitted a letter to the United Nations Security Council formally accepting “responsibility for the action of its officials” in relation to the Lockerbie bombing. On September 12, 2003, the United Nations lifted sanctions against Libya, following which the victims’ families were paid $4 million per victim. On September 24, 2004, the United States lifted most economic sanctions against Libya, and the families received an additional payment of $4 million per victim. On May 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the decision of President George W. Bush to remove Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.