Thursday, September 4, 2008

Condi, Talk to Joe before Chatting with 'Brother Colonel'

by Mona Eltahawy

4 Sep 2008

NEW YORK -- As Condoleezza Rice becomes the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya in 55 years, Fathi al-Jahmi will still remain in the cockroach-infested hospital room where he has been held against his will for months.

You don’t know who Fathi al-Jahmi is? Ask vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. In a statement to the Senate at the end of July, he called Jahmi “a courageous Libyan democracy advocate with serious health problems whose only crime was to speak truth to power.”

Rice knows who Jahmi is, because the State Department has issued various demands that Libya release him. But I wont hold my breath that she’ll make an issue of him during her visit.
Rice joins a slew of western leaders and officials trekking to Tripoli with eyes on deals aimed at tapping into Libya’s oil wealth. One after another they’ve donned rose-tinted glasses to see how Gadhafi has improvised his role as the dictator who came in from the cold.

His recovery began in 2003, when he gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. His conversion was enhanced -- in U.S. eyes, especially -- when Libya admitted responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing that killed 270 people, including 189 U.S. citizens. Ghadhafi agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to families of the victims, ending years of sanctions.
While Gadhafi surely relishes all his democratically-elected visitors ignoring his stranglehold on the Libyan people, Rice’s visit is the crowning glory of his rehabilitation.

A deal signed last month between the two countries to establish a humanitarian fund resolving compensation cases involving victims of U.S. and Libyan bombings gave the green light for Rice to visit the dictator Ronald Reagan called the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” -- for his support of terrorist groups.

And human rights? She’ll raise them, a U.S. official said, but would not provide details of specific cases. So we would be forgiven for suspecting that as long as non-Libyan victims of Gadhafi’s crimes are promised compensation, scant attention will be paid to Libyan victims of his four decades in power.

Joe Biden is known to tell it like it is, and in March 2004, he called on Gadhafi to release Jahmi, which led to a brief spell of freedom for the dissident.

In his July address to the Senate, Biden said:

“(Gadhafi) may have had a change of mind about Libya’s policies but I doubt that it has been matched by a change of heart.

“It is critical that the Bush administration pursue a broader engagement with the Libyan people and civil society. This relationship must be about more than securing contracts for American oil companies.

“Mr. Jahmi’s continuing captivity is a reminder that basic fundamental freedoms such as rule of law and freedom of speech do not exist inside Libya.

“Engagement does not mean that we surrender our values. Engagement means that we are in a stronger position to advance our values and to secure real change.”

Libyan security arrested Jahmi in October 2002, after he criticized Gadhafi and called for free elections, a free press and the release of political prisoners. A court sentenced him to five years in prison. He was released for two weeks after Biden’s visit to Tripoli in 2004, and arrested again after he repeated his calls for democracy and called Gadhafi a dictator in interviews with the U.S.-funded al-Hurrah television channel.

He has been in the custody of security agents ever since -- for “his own protection” and because he is “mentally disturbed,” the head of internal security has told Human Rights Watch.
Mohamed al-Jahmi -- a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Massachusetts -- said his brother suffers from hypertension, advanced stage diabetes, and a heart condition.

Mohamed told me that in July, Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, sent a message to the elders of al-Jahmi’s tribe that the Libyan regime would “liquidate Fathi al-Jahmi at the end of George Bush’s term in office.”

“I value dialogue without compromising our principles or values,” Mohamed told me. “Our rapprochement with Libya short circuits our justice system and bruises our credibility. Gadhafi is responsible for murdering more Americans than Timothy McVeigh did in the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet, McVeigh wasn’t allowed to buy himself out of justice as Gadhafi did.”
I am intimately familiar with Gadhafi’s thuggish regime. Exactly 12 years ago this week I went to Libya, then under U.N. sanctions, to cover the anniversary of Gadhafi’s coup. I was quickly branded a troublemaker because I tried to slip away from my Libyan minder.

During an impromptu Gadhafi news conference, his bodyguards tried to grab my tape recorder and push me away. When I fought back, a bodyguard -- a man, not the women bodyguards Gadhafi is notorious for -- twisted my nipple. I appealed for help from the “brother colonel,” as Gadhafi is known in my native Egypt. He stopped talking, made eye contact with me for a few seconds, and then continued as if this wasn’t happening right under his nose.

An Algerian journalist came to check on me afterwards and said he’d heard the Libyans say “just shoot her.”

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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