Families Head to Guantanamo Bay Seeking Justice in Bali Bombing Case


Frank Heffernan thought his daughter Megan was in South Korea, where she worked as an English teacher, when she heard the news of a devastating terrorist attack on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12, 2002.

Then the State Department called.

Megan Heffernan, 28, who was born and raised in Alaska and had a passion for travel, was among 202 people killed in coordinated attacks carried out by an al Qaeda affiliate on a nearby pub and club in Bali. She had gone there with friends on vacation.

“Not a day goes by that I don't think about her,” Heffernan said, dabbing his eyes with a tissue at his Florida home.

In the random and cruel style of terrorism, the bombing killed tourists and workers from 22 nations who were in a commercial district, including 38 Indonesians. Among the dead were Australian and British citizens who were there to attend a rugby match, Americans who were passionate about surfing, and Megan and two Korean friends, who were sightseeing when the bombs exploded.

Now, 20 years later, about a dozen relatives carrying the memory of the almost forgotten attack are heading to another faraway place, Guantanamo Bay, in the part of Cuba controlled by the United States. There they will represent the dead before a military jury in charge of deciding the prison sentence for two Malaysian men who pleaded guilty to conspiring in the attacks.

Among those making the trip are Heffernan and his wife, Bonnie K. Hall, whose own daughters met Megan in Anchorage. Megan's mother, Sandra, died from coronavirus three years ago. Heffernan said he was going to “express to the court the true loss” of his daughter, “a very thoughtful and religious girl who loved to travel.”

He said he is confident the court — the judge and military jury expected to meet next week — will decide a fair sentence.

“We don't even know the involvement of those two men,” Hall said of the prisoners, who have been held by the United States since 2003, first by the CIA and then since 2006 at Guantanamo Bay.

In an interview, Heffernan said he had not stopped at trying to understand what was behind the attack.

“Whatever the depraved and twisted reasoning behind the bombing, whether due to government, religion or national differences, the bombing cost the lives of 202 people,” he wrote in his victim impact statement to the court.

He has left “eternal pain to thousands of family and friends,” he added.

Prosecutors never proposed the death penalty in the Bali bombing case, which involved three defendants, unlike the 9/11 Guantanamo case. Now, with this week's guilty pleas, only one Indonesian man known as Hambali will face trial as the accused “mastermind” of the Jemaah Islamiyah movement, which carried out the attack. That trial could begin next year.

Heffernan said he opposed capital punishment years ago after a visit to Vatican City, where he saw Pope John Paul II. It was a kind of epiphany, he said, that aligned him with “anti-death penalty theology.”

“Also, being old, I realize that if you are given enough grace to live this long, you can look back and regret the things you have done,” he added.

Megan's favorite color was purple and she preferred a T-shirt whose slogan said: “Life is uncertain.” Eat dessert first,” Heffernan said. She would have turned 50 last month.

Each year since her death, Heffernan has commemorated Megan's birthday, December 12, by donating a set of purple vestments for a priest to wear while celebrating mass. Each one has a small tag commemorating her daughter.

Last year's donation has already been sent to Alaska, Ms. Hall said. “They will travel with a priest from town to town.”

At the time of her death, Megan Heffernan had skied in Argentina, took a high school trip to Greece, and visited Ireland with her older brother Michael, her younger sister Maureen, and Maureen's husband. Her father paid for the trip but did not accompany them for fear of ruining the fun.

“Children born to a Heffernan father are the luckiest children in the world,” said Hall, who recalled how he wrote to Megan every week, using a No. 2 pencil and a notepad, after she moved to Busan. , South Korea, to Teach English to doctors, practicing doctors, in a postdoctoral education program. She sometimes sent packages of Pringles, cookies and other favorites.

He traveled throughout Asia, to Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. He went from China to Vietnam on river boats, down the Mekong and took a bus to Hanoi, his father said. He had visited some of those places during the Vietnam War when, in 1967 and 1968, he was an Army helicopter medevac pilot and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor. “She would go somewhere and then she would tell us,” Heffernan said.

He had many ideas about how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He took photographs with a camera that his father had given him. She thought maybe she wanted to be a photographer. She was pretty enough to be a model, she said, and she had the grace to maybe be an actress. When she finished traveling, she wanted to buy a lodge in Alaska.

The State Department called about a day after the attacks. Heffernan learned that his daughter had been on vacation in Indonesia. Rescuers in Bali, 13 time zones away, were trying to identify survivors, the injured and the missing.

The next call asked for Megan's dental records. It was then, she said, that she began to pray for forgiveness for any mistakes she had made along the way in raising her eldest daughter.

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