Don't Let My Brother's Death Be In Vain
Forbes, 06.16.09, 12:01 AM EDT
Where were the U.S. and human rights organizations?
On May 21, 2009, my brother Fathi Eljahmi, Libya's most prominent dissident, died. He had been imprisoned since March 26, 2004, just two weeks after President George W. Bush cited his release as a sign that Libya had changed. Ironically, this was a time when Libya presided over the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Until his last two weeks, when, already comatose, he was flown to Jordan, Fathi spent most of his last five years in solitary confinement in a Libyan prison, where he experienced torture and abuse. As his condition deteriorated, Libya denied him regular medical care. There was seldom international pressure to do otherwise.
Bush paid lip service to Fathi's case, but administration officials seldom followed up on the president's promises. The State Department conveyed concern about Fathi's case, but Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, who has since retired, often delegated the issue to junior officials. (Ironically, as an official at Bechtel Corporation, Welch now pursues business contracts in Libya.)
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son to Foggy Bottom on April 21, 2009, she too did not raise Fathi's case directly, but rather left the task to an aide. Had Clinton forcefully and personally raised the issue, Fathi might be alive today.
It's not just politicians who should reflect on how they handled Fathi's case. My brother's death should give prominent human rights organizations pause. For nearly a year, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch hesitated to advocate publicly for Fathi's case, because they feared their case workers might lose access to Libyan visas.
Only on the day of Fathi's death did Human Rights Watch issue a press release that announced what we had known for two months: That Fathi appeared frail and emaciated, could barely speak and could not lift his arms or head. When the researchers asked him on April 25 and 26 if he was free to leave prison, he said no. When they asked him if he wanted to go home, he said yes.
Perhaps because they still fear antagonizing Gaddafi, in their May 21 statement Human Rights Watch didn't call for an independent investigation and stopped short of holding the Libyan regime responsible for Fathi's death.
Amnesty International also compromised. They moved an April 2009 demonstration originally slated to occur in front of Libya's U.N. mission to the U.S. mission instead so as not to antagonize Gaddafi. For the same reason, they ignored pleas for a public statement about Fathi's deterioration. While an Amnesty delegation was in Libya when Fathi died, the Libyan regime refused it permission to travel to Libya's second largest city.
After learning of Fathi's death, Amnesty declined to condemn Libya's role and instead simply requested that Gaddafi's regime inform the family of the conditions that led to his death. It is unfortunate that other than the American Islamic Congress no Muslim or Arab organization ever advocated for Fathi, even as he dedicated his own life to advancing human rights for Arabs and Muslims in one of the region's most oppressive states.
Experience has shown me that country researchers in marquee human rights organizations are vulnerable to the regime's manipulation. Sarah Leah Whitson is one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who last saw Fathi before he was rushed to Jordan. She wrote an article for Foreign Policy upon her return from Libya, where she described efforts by the Gaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development, which is headed by the Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam, as a "spring." The organization is actively menacing my brother's family. Some family members continue to endure interrogation, denial of citizenship papers and passports, round the clock surveillance and threats of rape and physical liquidation.
Not all organizations compromised their principles. Physicians for Human Rights didn't compromise with the Gaddafi regime and called for an independent medical investigation after Fathi's death. One day, when free media penetrates Libya, my brother's friends and admirers will learn how the American Jewish Committee sought to rally world leaders to Fathi's cause.
It is important that Fathi not die in vain. President Barack Obama, congressional leaders and the human rights community should demand an independent medical investigation of Fathi's death. They must hold Gaddafi accountable. For the State Department and the marquee human rights organizations, his death may simply be an inconvenience removed, but this attitude is shortsighted. Should Gaddafi conclude that Fathi's death passed with little more than a press release, any reform efforts will backslide, as his government concludes that it can liquidate opponents with impunity.
Eljahmi is a Libyan/American activist based in Massachusetts.