September 15, 2004
by Claudia Rosett
Unless someone with influence acts soon, this column must serve as an obituary for the hopes held out earlier this year of political reform in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya. More concretely, we may soon be reading obituaries for one of Libya's top democratic dissidents, Fathi Eljahmi--who is reportedly ill and in danger of dying in the hands of Libya's security police.
For anyone wondering why we should care, apart from such vague considerations as sheer human decency, the latest answer lies in the charred schoolhouse ruins and children's graves of Beslan, Russia. The only real hope of ending this global war is to replace the tyrannies that spawn terror with free societies that engender love of life, not death. In that endeavor, such democrats as Mr. Eljahmi are allies we cannot afford either morally or politically to abandon. They are our own best hope.
Jailed two years ago in Libya's notorious Abu Salim prison for advocating political pluralism and free speech in Libya, Mr. Eljahmi was released this past March, in the first happy round of U.S.-Libyan rapprochement, after Gadhafi agreed last December to give up his nuclear weapons program. Mr. Eljahmi seized the chance to speak up again for liberty, saying that Libya needed the equivalent of the political roundtable debate that in Poland, in the 1980s, helped bring democratic reform.
Less than three weeks after Mr. Eljahmi's release, and just after the freshly rehabilitated Gadhafi had hosted visits to Tripoli by Tony Blair and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Libyan security squads detained Mr. Eljahmi once again, along with his wife and eldest son. Although "detained" is a perhaps too polite a word for a process in which Gadhafi's thugs assaulted Mr. Eljahmi at the door of his home, then dragged him away and have since held him incommunicado.
There has been no news of his wife and son, a silence alarming in itself. But last week, a message from sources inside Libya reached a group of Libyan-Americans in the U.S., who have been campaigning for democratic reform back in Libya--the American-Libyan Freedom Alliance. One of ALFA's leaders got word that Mr. Eljahmi has been transferred to Libyan security headquarters in Tripoli, a dread place known as Zawyet Al Dahmani, which is Libya's version of the old Soviet Lubyanka. With his health fast deteriorating, the 63-year-old Mr. Eljahmi, a diabetic with a heart condition, now in the un-tender care of Gadhafi's interrogators, is reportedly in danger of dying.
ALFA itself, according to several members, has been threatened in recent months by Gadhafi. Libyan agents in various sinister ways have sent them the message that the Libyan regime has long arms and can reach them anywhere in the world. That's a threat to take seriously, given Gadhafi's long record and wide reach of murder during the 35 years since he seized power--especially if the West now contents itself by accepting his blood money and applauding his "rehabilitation" while he does to death a man like Mr. Eljahmi. The blood on Gadhafi's hands belongs not only to the victims of his regime's terrorist acts abroad, but also to his many victims inside Libya, including the hundreds of prisoners shot to death in cold blood in 1996, during a protest over hideous conditions in the same Abu Salim prison where Mr. Eljahmi was jailed from 2002-03.
Despite Gadhafi's threats, ALFA members (including Mr. Eljahmi's younger brother, Mohamed Eljahmi, a naturalized U.S. citizen) have been seeking help in obtaining Fathi Eljahmi's release, or at the very least arranging to send him medical care in custody. ALFA has sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, reminding him that President Bush specifically mentioned Mr. Eljahmi this spring as one of the important democratic voices of the Islamic world. ALFA members have made the obligatory rounds of assorted other State Department officials and congressional offices--and come up dry.
That's worth thinking about, because in theory there are plenty of forces and resources arrayed to help and protect someone like Fathi Eljahmi.
First and foremost, at least in theory, there's the United Nations, with its cozy ties between the Libyan regime and the U.N. Human Rights Commission--chaired last year by none other than Libya's current ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Najat Al-Hajjaji. If Her Excellency Ms. Al-Hajjaji will not rush to Mr. Eljahmi's defense (and somehow no one seems to be seriously considering that she might), then perhaps Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who last year blessed Ms. Al-Hajjaji's presence in his human rights shop, could use his U.N. world stage to say a word or two on this matter of genuine human rights.
Then there's the Bush administration, which has made liberty abroad a pillar of foreign policy, and with its newly opened U.S. mission in Tripoli is well-placed to explain to Gadhafi that the U.S. means what it says. There is of course the election season consideration that the nuclear disarmament of Libya is one of the victories of the Bush administration--which it certainly is. But that came not of Gadhafi's goodness of heart, but of his fear upon witnessing the fall of Saddam Hussein. Toadying to Gadhafi is no way to keep him in line. If an American demand for the release of Mr. Eljahmi is enough to start Gadhafi ordering up more nuclear blueprints from China, then you can bet your sweet uranium Gadhafi was going to try it anyway--and we'd be smarter to keep him running scared, rather than fat, sassy and secure.
Of course there's also John Kerry, still struggling to define his post-Vietnam foreign policy. As it happens, Fathi Eljahmi's brother is one of Mr. Kerry's constituents. What better message than for Mr. Kerry to call Mr. Bush to account and demand that if Libya's regime wants to be welcomed into the modern world--and removed from the list of terror-breeding nations--it must make room for such democratic figures as Mr. Eljahmi.
And don't forget Congress. It was Sen. Joe Biden who during a visit to Gadhafi last March asked for Mr. Eljahmi's release from prison, and was mighty proud to publicize the achievement when Gadhafi said yes. How about some follow-up, at decibel levels the fabled "Arab street" can hear, that releasing a democrat from prison is not something to be reversed as soon as Joe Biden is safely back in Washington.
Then there are the enlightened governments of Europe, which hosted a visit from Gadhafi in April. Not that anyone expects anything at this point from France. But Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dropped in on Gadhafi last month, and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder is slated to visit this fall. Here is ample chance to explain to Gadhafi that it is not only Americans who understand the importance of democratization.
Laughable as it sounds, even the oilmen now rushing into Libya might want to pause for a moment and consider what kind of deals they are cutting with the dictator. Not that it is necessary or even wise for businessmen as a rule to start making policy. But as far as Western businessman serve as emissaries of the democratic world, it is in their collective interest, and ours, to spell out the democratic values that let them thrive in the first place. To expect that of any one businessman may be absurd, but where is the conscience, and voice, of such outfits as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?
Finally, there is the press--the free-wheeling outspoken Western press, so properly shocked by Abu Ghraib. When it comes to Gadhafi's secret police and dungeons, to his regime's chronic practice of disappearances, torture and murder, where is the outrage?
Which brings us back to Mr. Eljahmi. Does anyone care to imagine how much courage and conviction it takes to be a citizen of Libya, living in Libya, fully aware of the beatings and killings that continue in Gadhafi's prisons--and yet defy Gadhafi to demand democratic rule? In an interview last March, during his brief spell between imprisonments, Mr. Eljahmi told the U.S.-based Al-Hurrah Arabic TV broadcasting service that in order to democratize Gadhafi's absolute rule "I am willing to sacrifice my life. If he wants to kill me, I am ready to die for the Libyan people."
That's his choice. Ours should be to do everything in our power to help him stay alive.
This article appeared on opinionjournal.com on September 8, 2004.
Claudia Rosett was formerly an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
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