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The New York Sun
Thursday, 1 April, 2004

Libya's Democrats Press Their Case

Libya's Democrats Press Their Case

Mr. el-Jahmi's Thank You

Staff Reporter of the Sun

WASHINGTON - With the Bush administration in the final stages of wrapping up a deal with Muammar Gadhafi, Libya might seem like an unlikely target for those seeking to spread freedom and democracy in the Arab world.

Washington, after all, is offering to allow American oil companies to invest in Libya's petroleum sector as Libya abandons its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs. Human rights haven't been at the forefront of the discussion.

But the American Libyan Freedom Alliance is trying to make sure that in the middle of all the wheeling and dealing, President Bush makes good on his commitment to promote democracy and human rights in Arab world. So far, they are proving uncannily effective.

Take the case of the Libyan dissident leader, Fathi el-Jahmi. Before Senator Biden, a Democrat of Delaware and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited with Colonel Gadhafi in March, the senator's staff met with ALFA's communications director,Mohamed Buisier,and the dissident's brother Mohamed el-Jahmi.In the meeting, the two exiles pressed Mr. Biden to raise the issue of Fathi el-Jahmi, who was imprisoned in October 2002.

On March 12, Mr. el-Jahmi was released. "Words fail me in attempting to thank you for what you have done for me, personally, and my Libyan people. Your courageous and clear-headed leadership has brought our people and now me to the verge of beginning a new book in the history of our country," Mr. el-Jahmi wrote to Mr. Biden on March 14.

The story of Mr. el-Jahmi, a 63-year old civil engineer, is a microcosm of the new strategy for Libya's emerging democrats at home and abroad. Between 1970 and 1971, Mr. el-Jahmi was the governor of the oil-rich province of al-Khaleej. But he ran afoul of Mr. Gadhafi in 1973 when he began privately criticizing the Libyan strongman for refusing to allow elections. For the last 30 years, Mr. el-Jahmi's criticisms of his government have grown sharper. Last week he told an Arabic television station that he never recognized the Green Book, Libya's supreme law, or the revolutionary committees, the government bodies that have the right to seize private property of any "enemies of the revolution."

ALFA members believe that if American diplomats had not been paying so much attention to Libya today, there would have been no chance that Mr. al-Jahmi would have been released from prison. But the battle for freedom and democracy in Libya is hardly won. After Mr. el-Jahmi's release, he spoke out on Arab television networks against the Libyan regime. His house was soon surrounded. For the last eight days his phone lines have been cut, and he is virtually incommunicado with his family in America.

"This incident proves that we can make cracks in the wall of fear," Mr. Buisier told The New York Sun yesterday. "Gadhafi wants to test his new relationship with America by playing around with Fathi."

The vice chairman of ALFA, Jaballa Hassan, said he was concerned that President Bush's freedom agenda would be set aside for his nonproliferation agenda. Mr. Hassan is now 53. He was fired from his job as a communications professor in Libya in 1995 after the regime accused him of being a CIA agent. "If you want a democracy in the Middle East and the president wants to eliminate the terrorism, then you should pressure governments like Libya not just to give up nuclear weapons, but to have elections with many parties and to respect human rights," he said.

In a March 14 letter to Mr. Bush, Mr. el-Jahmi echoed these concerns. "My people are now ready to embrace the freedoms, which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,of which Libya is an original signatory. With a dictator like Col. Muammar Qaddafi, it is enormously difficult, but with your help, Mr. President, and your fellow democratic leaders in the free world we can succeed," the letter said.

Two days later, Mr. el-Jahmi went on the al-Arabia television network and the new American-funded al-Hurra TV station to trash the Libyan dictator for his arbitrary detention of political prisoners and lack of respect for individual rights. "He called Gadhafi a war criminal and said, 'His efforts to get rid of weapons of mass destruction is just an attempt to buy the silence of the West, to trade the liberty of the Libyan people for WMD,'" Mohamed el-Jahmi told the Sun yesterday. ALFA has a handful of committed members in America, and its members told the Sun yesterday that they are in regular contact with 80 underground activists in Libya.Its members are longtime Libyan activists driven out of the country over the 35-year reign of Mr. Gadhafi.

Mr. Buisier's father, Saleh, was Mr. Gadhafi's first foreign minister. In 1973, when Mohamed was a 19-year-old student in Tripoli, his family fell out of favor with the regime and he was arrested.In an interview yesterday, he said he spent 11 months in the Porta Benito Prison, named for Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He said he and the other prisoners were forced to place their feet in ropes tied to a stick and pull, as guards beat their soles with thick electric cords. Occasionally, the prisoners were forced to run in a circle around the fountain in the prison's courtyard as guards beat them at random with belt buckles."I was lucky," he said. "Later in the 1970s, the Libyans learned torture techniques from the Romanians." He said he has cousins who were blindfolded and left naked in jail cells as trained dogs were unleashed to attack their armpits and thighs, sometimes for hours at a time.

Today in Washington, Mr. Buisier has had access to high-level officials working to normalize ties with Mr. Gadhafi. He met the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, in February, before Mr. Burns visited Tripoli. The exiled dissident handed Mr. Burns a previously classified diplomatic cable to Washington from an American diplomat in Tripoli. The cable, drafted in 1953, was a frank assessment, according to Mr. Buisier, of the prospects for democracy in Libya in the dawn of the country's post-colonial era. "I told Mr. Burns, 'You see, your country and my country have been having this discussion for over 50 years,'" Mr. Buisier said.

The message Mr. Buisier and his organization delivered in that meeting to Mr. Burns was, "You cannot encourage Gadhafi to move towards democracy, you have to compel him." Mr. Buisier said State Department officials have told him that while the policy of the American government will not be regime change or to actively seek to topple the government in Tripoli, they are open to funding civilian organizers. Nonetheless, the State Department is also not going to link Libya's record on human rights with America's policy on the lifting of American economic sanctions. At the same time, the fate of Mr. el-Jahmi has made its way into the talking points. On Wednesday, a State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, said, "The subject of Fathi El-Jahmi is an issue that we have discussed with the Libyan government along with or in the context of a broader discussion on the importance of human rights and respect for human rights."

But for Mr.Buisier,America's current position on human rights in Libya may open the door wide enough for regime change. "The U.S. spent $3 billion on the Solidarity movement in Poland," he said. "For $500 million we can get people on the streets." Mr. Buisier said he is walking the halls of Congress and making the case for a plan to fund the Libyan human rights movement. He says the money would be used to support 11 offices in Libya to organize local meetings on issues like human rights. It would also be used to support the families of political prisoners and to finance press outlets connected to the country's universities.

One early ally of this plan is America's ambassador to Hungary during the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Mark Palmer. "I am urging them to become like Solidarity and to get organized in cells," he said. "This starts with people talking to other people, printing underground publications."

Mr. Palmer said that in the Libyan case, organizers should find an ostensibly nonpolitical issue but organize around it. In Hungary, activists coalesced around the construction of a dam in the Danube River. "That gave them confidence that they could march without a permit," Mr. Palmer said. "I am urging my Libyan friends to develop a structure to look for those opportunities."

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