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The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, 7 April, 2003

Dial A Dissident
Why Won't Gadhafi Let Fathi Eljahmi Answer His Phone?


Fathi Eljahmi

Dial a Dissident
Why won't Gadhafi let Fathi Eljahmi answer his phone?

BY CLAUDIA ROSETT
Wednesday, April 7, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

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

Gadhafi is about to find out whether his new friends, the U.S. and Britain, care only about disarmament, or if we also stand behind the eloquent speeches of recent times about the deep need for liberty and justice in the Islamic world. Gadhafi is right now running a reality check on just how serious President Bush might be about pinpointing tyranny as the root of terror (which it is). Gadhafi is, as you read this, checking whether his arms deal has bought him license to carry on with complete impunity as a tyrant and trouble-maker in his own nation, and neighborhood--as long as he ships his WMD collection off for study and disposal in Tennessee.

Gadhafi's test involves the fate of a Libyan democratic dissident, Fathi Eljahmi, who recently spent 18 months in Gadhafi's prisons after he dared in late 2002 to call publicly for free speech and pluralism in Libya.
Back in December, when Gadhafi renounced his wicked ways--or at least some of them--Mr. Eljahmi was still serving time in Libya's notorious Abu Salim prison. As Gadhafi entered upon the diplomatic whirl of recent months, in which visiting politicians and oilmen have been parading through to do business, Mr. Eljahmi's fate came briefly to the fore. One of the visitors, Sen. Joseph Biden, in early March raised the issue of Mr. Eljahmi's imprisonment with Gadhafi himself.

Lo! On March 12, Mr. Eljahmi was released. On the face of it, this seemed a sign that Libya might indeed be opening up; that Gadhafi is turning sage in his old age; that he had read well the warning conveyed by the fall of Saddam; that he understood the message of President Bush's speeches underscoring the need for freedom in the Arab world, the struggle to engender democracy in Iraq. Lest anyone doubt Gadhafi's sudden conversion, there have been the promising interviews given to the press by Gadhafi's son and heir-apparent, Seif Gadhafi, 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 Mr. Eljahmi was released, all at first seemed well. He returned to his home in Tripoli. He was mentioned in a speech by President Bush, to whom he wrote a letter of fervent thanks, saying he had just gone to the newly opened American mission in Tripoli "to convey my deepest appreciation to you and the American government for the role you played in obtaining my release." To this, Mr. Eljahmi added, "As long as I have breath, I will fight for the liberty of my people."

Mr. Eljahmi gave television interviews to a U.S.-based Arabic TV service, Al-Hurrah, broadcasting into the Middle East and to Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV. He gave an interview, by telephone, to me, which I wrote about two weeks ago. 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, Mr. Eljahmi's home had already been surrounded by state security. By the time Mr. Eljahmi spoke with me on March 22, the telephone landline to his home had been cut, depriving his family of their only source of income, which was his son's Internet cafe. At that stage, Mr. Eljahmi still had a cell phone. He talked about creating democracy in Libya, starting with the kind of political roundtable that in the 1980s helped open up the political system in Poland. 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. He stressed that for democrats risking their lives to push for liberty in Libya, U.S. support is vital.

That same week brought a series of major steps in Gadhafi's readmission to civilized society. On March 24, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns arrived in Libya, the highest-ranking U.S. official to go there since 1980. On March 25, Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya, telling Gadhafi, "It is good to be here."The next day, March 26, Mr. Eljahmi was assaulted by a state security agent at the door of his own home. Later that day, according to accounts from Tripoli, Mr. Eljahmi vanished, along with his wife and son. His brother, Mohamed Eljahmi, a naturalized U.S. 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 Eljahmi 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. Gadhafi, lauded in recent months as a "statesmen," 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 Gadhafi'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 Mr. Eljahmi--and his wife and son--are allowed to disappear into the murk, the dungeons or the graves upon which Gadhafi has built his long totalitarian rule, we fail not only Gadhafi's test, but our own principles, at our own peril. It bears remembering, as this latest caprice of Gadhafi unfolds, that his depredations to date did not require the weapons of mass murder he has now won such plaudits for rendering up. The damage he has done--the terrorism, the destructive influence in Africa, the wreck of his own nation--has always been limited chiefly by what he could get away with.

There are signs that the Bush administration is making some quiet protest. Evidently, that is not enough. 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 Mr. Eljahmi. Where is Rep. Curt Weldon, who in January effused to Gadhafi that in a reformed Libya "there is no limit to what we can accomplish together"? What about a public reprimand from Mr. Bush or Mr. Blair--a reminder not only to Gadhafi, 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 Gadhafi's son, Seif, 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 Gadhafi. These are Mr. Eljahmi's phone numbers (218 is the country code for Libya, and in the U.S. you must dial 011 first):

Home: +218-21-360-8921
Mobile: +218-91-371-9129

Call Mr. Eljahmi. Right now, the home number just rings, while the cell 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 Gadhafi has for 35 years confined the 5.4 million people of Libya.

Gadhafi will have passed our test when Mr. Eljahmi is again free to answer his own phone, and speak his mind. Until then, there is more information to be gleaned about Gadhafi's regime from those inhuman busy signals, than from anything Gadhafi, his son, or his newfound admirers, would like us to believe about reform of the Libyan regime.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.


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