LIBYA: Dial a dissident
Claudia Rosett

Just four months after winning fulsome praise for agreeing to give up his programs for weapons of mass murder, Libya’s Col. Muammar Qadhafi has presented the democratic world with a test.

Qadhafi is about to find out whether his new friends, the US and Britain, care only about disarmament, or if they also stand behind the eloquent speeches of recent times about the deep need for liberty and justice in the Islamic world. Qadhafi is right now running a reality check on just how serious US President George W. Bush might be about pinpointing tyranny as the root of terror – which it is.

Qadhafi is, as you read this, checking whether his arms deal has bought him license to carry on with complete impunity as a tyrant and troublemaker in his own nation, and neighborhood – as long as he ships his WMD collection off for study and disposal in Tennessee.

Qadhafi’s test involves the fate of a Libyan political dissident, Fathi Al Jahmi, who recently spent 18 months in prison after he dared in late 2002 to call publicly for free speech and pluralism in Libya.

Back in December, when Qadhafi renounced his wicked ways – or at least some of them – Jahmi was still serving time in Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison. As Qadhafi entered upon the diplomatic whirl of recent months, in which visiting politicians and oilmen have been parading through to do business, Jahmi’s fate came briefly to the fore. One of the visitors, US Senator Joseph Biden, in early March raised the issue of Jahmi’s imprisonment with Qadhafi himself.

Lo! On March 12, Jahmi was released. On the face of it, this seemed a sign that Libya might indeed be opening up and that Qadhafi was turning sage in his old age. Lest anyone doubt Qadhafi’s sudden conversion, there have been the promising interviews given to the press by Qadhafi’s son and heir-apparent, Saif, who just last month announced to the leaders of Arab nations, “You have to bring democracy to your countries, and then there will be no need to fear America or your people.”

When Jahmi was released, all at first seemed well. He returned to his home in Tripoli. He was mentioned in a speech by Bush, to whom he wrote a letter of fervent thanks, adding, “As long as I have breath, I will fight for the liberty of my people.” Jahmi also gave television interviews. In every instance, he stressed the need to develop a pluralistic polity and rule of law in Libya.

That lasted about two weeks.

By March 19, Jahmi’s home had been surrounded by state security. By March 22, his telephone landline had been cut, depriving his family of their only source of income, which was his son’s internet cafe. At that stage, Jahmi still had a mobile phone. He talked to me about creating democracy in Libya. He was well aware that he had crossed the line past which the best hope for survival among political dissidents is to remain visible on the world’s radar.

That same week brought a series of major steps in Qadhafi’s readmission to civilized society. On March 24, the US assistant secretary of state, William Burns, arrived in Libya, the highest-ranking US official to go there since 1980. On March 25, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya, telling Qadhafi, “It is good to be here.”

The next day, March 26, Jahmi was assaulted by a state security agent at the door of his own home. Later that day, according to accounts from Tripoli, Jahmi vanished, along with his wife and son. His brother, Muhammad Al Jahmi, a naturalized US citizen living in Massachusetts, and co-founder of a private group, the American Libyan Freedom Alliance, has been trying to discover Fathi’s whereabouts, without success.

If Fathi Al Jahmi has fled into hiding, it is surely not because that is how he prefers to live, but because he has been threatened and attacked. Far more likely is that he, his wife, and son have been taken into custody. Qadhafi, lauded in recent months as a ‘statesman,’ increasingly secure about prospects of oil deals and international acceptance – both now flowing in – has allowed a dissident two weeks to have his say. Now there is silence.

That is Qadhafi’s test of the Western diplomats and politicians who have been flocking to Libya to praise him. He is now busy discovering what he can get away with. If Jahmi – and his wife and son – are allowed to disappear into the murk, the dungeons, or the graves upon which Qadhafi has built his long totalitarian rule, we fail not only Qadhafi’s test, but our own principles, at our own peril.

It is time for all the pundits and politicians who last December hailed the triumph of diplomacy in Libya to speak up about the disappearance of Jahmi. Where is US Representative Curt Weldon, who in January effused to Qadhafi that in a reformed Libya “there is no limit to what we can accomplish together”? What about the public reprimands from Bush and Blair – a reminder not only to Qadhafi, but to any tyrant now watching this test, that the leaders of the democratic world will not be played as hypocrites and fools? And if Qadhafi’s son, Saif, means what he says about the value of democracy, surely it is time he stopped giving interviews about it in Cairo, and jetted back to Libya to defend a Libyan democrat in deep trouble.

There’s a test we might in turn pose for Qadhafi. These are Jahmi’s phone numbers: home: 218-21-360-8921; mobile: 218-91-371-9129. Call Jahmi. Right now, the home number just rings, while the mobile phone gives a recorded message; both then default to a busy signal. That means you have reached the wall of silence and repression within which Qadhafi has for 35 years confined the people of Libya. Qadhafi will have passed our test when Jahmi is again free to answer his own phone, and speak his mind.

Claudia Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Courtesy of Middle East & North Africa Information List (MENA Info)