Libya’s leading democratic dissident, Fathi Eljahmi, died today — off the radar of the MSM, held for a final two weeks under wraps in a Jordanian hospital to which he was spirited earlier this month, comatose, and still watched by Libyan security, after almost seven years of isolation, deprivation and abuse inside the prison system of Muammar Gaddafi.
Fathi Eljhami gave his life for the cause of freedom. Part of his time in the clutches of Gaddafi’s security apparatus he spent — in an echo of Soviet brutality inflicted on democratic dissidents — confined in a Libyan psychiatric hospital. His “insanity” consisted of advocating free speech and calling for democratic reform in Libya.
It is hard to imagine how much courage it must have taken for Fathi — born in Libya, standing up for freedom inside Libya — to defy Gaddafi, whose regime along with its terrorist history abroad has tyrannized Libya itself for the past 40 years. When Fathi Eljahmi began speaking up for freedom, years ago, Gaddafi in 2002 threw him into Libya’s Abu Salim prison –notorious for its abuse of inmates, including a horrendous massacre of prisoners in 1996, in which up to 1,200 may have died.
In 2004, Eljahmi enjoyed a brief respite, released from prison at the request of then-Senator Joe Biden, who that March came to Libya to visit Gaddafi. Eljahmi’s release lasted less than three weeks. He answered America’s call for democratization in the Islamic world; he gave a series of interviews calling for liberty in Libya. For broadcast throughout the Middle East, he told the U.S.-based Arabic language Al Hurrah TV station that “I share with President Bush and all of the American people human sentiments and desires for freedom, democracy and propagation of democracy, human rights, right of ownership and right to form a civil society.”
It was during that fleeting respite in March, 2004, that I spoke with him by phone from New York. Fathi spoke halting English, and I do not speak Arabic, so his brother — a naturalized U.S. citizen living in America, Mohamed Eljahmi — acted as interpreter on a conference call between the U.S. and Eljhami’s cell phone in Libya (his landline had been cut). Fathi described a scene of internal dissent in Libya, and the need for political reform. He said he was against the deal just done by the U.S. with Gaddafi — in which Gaddafi gave up his WMD programs in exchange for getting off the U.S. terror list and out from under sanctions. Fathi described it as “a deal that trades WMD for the liberty of the Libyan people.”
It seems a reasonable assessment by now to say that he sure had that right.
In late March, 2004, Fathi Eljhami was snatched back into custody by Libyan security forces, for what turned out to be more than five solid years — in other words, for the rest of his life. Held much of that time incommunicado, he went on sending messages when he could. In 2005, when he was allowed a visit by a representative of HumanRights Watch, he asked that his greetings be sent to the U.S. President and Congress. Those greetings included the specific words: “Tell them we are ready for democracy.”
When he was re-arrested in March, 2004, Fathi was 62 years old; lively, courageous, outspoken and full of plans for rallying Libyans to the cause of a freer country. He died today, at the age of 68, imprisoned, stifled and physically destroyed by Gaddafi’s regime.
For his brother in America, Mohamed Eljahmi, the years of Fathi’s imprisonment have meant endless rounds with the media and in Washington, trying to draw attention to his brother’s imprisonment, and defense of freedom. Mohamed, or “Moh,” deserves recognition along with his brother, Fathi, for explaining, defending, and standing by the cause of liberty — long after many of the worthies in Washington, especially in the State Department, have switched out the lights and gone home for the day.
Over the past five years, I have written and written about Fathi Eljahmi. So have a number of others. Various human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called attention to his case. Physicians for Human Rights sent a doctor to see him, reported that he had been deprived of vital medication, and called last year for his immediate release to seek decent medical care.
But Libya did not let him out travel anywhere until early this month, when — according to his brother, Moh — he had lapsed into a coma, and it appeared his death was imminent. At that point, Libyan authorities dispatched him to Jordan, where he was kept in a medical center, his visitors still monitored — according to Moh — by Libyan security. This was a move hailed on May 13 by a spokesman for the U.S. State Department as a “positive development” — which at the time seemed at best a highly blinkered, cavalier and short-term view of a drama in which a vibrant advocate of democracy had been reduced by Gaddafi’s prison system to a comatose hospital patient, neither seen nor heard in public for more than five years.
Gaddafi, while destroying the life of Fathi Eljahmi, has received a parade of important visitors (including, last fall, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), shed sanctions, been taken off the terror list, and has gone on to head the African Union. Libya headed the preparations for the UN’s Durban II racist conference on racism, held last month in Geneva. With U.S. assent, Libya has been exalted these past two years to a seat on the UN Security Council. And an envoy of Gaddafi’s Libya is expected to become president of the UN General Assembly for its next annual session, from Sept. 2009-Sept. 2010.
This is not because Libya’s regime has reformed — which it has not. This is because the “international community” doesn’t give a damn.
As Fathi Eljahmi lay dying in Libyan-organized seclusion in Jordan, the world was focused on other matters — including a case now in the news of a Libyan-born Al Qaeda terrorist who died recently in the same Abu Salim prison where Fathi was held during his first round of incarceration.
For years, like some of the others following Fathi’s case, I have been trying via one angle after another to draw attention to the monstrous injustices inflicted on this true freedom fighter. Yesterday I filed a column to Forbes.com, “A Tale of Two Libyans,” contrasting the considerable concern now being devoted to the dead Libyan terrorist with the broad lack of interest in the continuing plight of the gravely ill Libyan democratic advocate, Fathi Eljahmi.
Shortly after that column came out last night, came word from Moh that Fathi Eljahmi had just died in Jordan. May we find ways in hard times ahead to keep faith with this hero. In giving his life for the cause of freedom, Fathi Eljahmi fought not only for the future of Libya, but for all of us.
(Credit for photo above: Human Rights Watch)