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The New York Times

Monday, 27 December, 2004

Fathi al-Jahmi

For A Critic, Libya's Nascent Openness Doesn't Apply

For a Critic, Libya's Nascent Openness Doesn't Apply

The New York Times

Published: December 27, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya - Few people dare cross the aging army colonel who runs this repressive oil patch, but Fathi al-Jahmi is one.

Interviewed on an Arabic satellite television station shortly after his release from prison in March, Mr. Jahmi, a balding, grandfatherly engineer and longtime critic of the government, minced no words, calling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a war criminal and a terrorist.

Mr. Jahmi was arrested again the next day and has not been heard from since.

Libya may be back on the Western diplomatic circuit - a handful of European leaders have visited the onetime rogue state this year, and the United States is planning to reopen an embassy here - but it remains a tightly controlled country that brooks no dissent.

There are small signs of change, indications that Mr. Jahmi's lonely voice of criticism may soon be joined by others. For now, though, the elaborate security apparatus that has long silenced political opposition and kept Colonel Qaddafi in power is still going about the business of tracking and, if necessary, punishing critics.

It has been that way since a spate of executions and disappearances decades ago convinced most people that it was best to play along.

Mr. Jahmi was one of those, for a while. Trained as a civil engineer, he ran a major construction company in the early years of Colonel Qaddafi's rule and eventually became a provincial official. He quit in 1973 to start his own business, but it was nationalized a few years later. After that he became a burr in Colonel Qaddafi's blanket, writing letters to President Ronald Reagan and publicly complaining about the government.

In October 2002, he took the microphone at a Basic People's Conference in the Manshia district of Tripoli. The assemblies are supposed to be the building blocks of what Colonel Qaddafi calls direct democracy, the means by which the Libyan people assert their power. But a web of laws and decrees and organizations intended to "protect the revolution" prevents any serious expression of opposition.

Mr. Jahmi called for free elections, for a free press and for abandoning "The Green Book" - Colonel Qaddafi's answer to Mao's "Little Red Book" - a rambling treatise that serves as a guide to how Libya is governed. He was arrested on charges of defaming Colonel Qaddafi and inciting domestic conflicts, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

He is not alone. Human rights organizations and Libyan dissident groups outside the country say dozens of Qaddafi critics are languishing behind bars, including more than 80 university professors who have called for democracy and the rule of law. Some are reported to be on death row.

The government argues that Mr. Jahmi simply broke the law, but human rights advocates say the laws are written ambiguously enough to ensnare anyone whom the government wishes to silence.

Still, the status quo is being subtly challenged here. As Libya reopens its doors to the West, fresh economic opportunities are offering some Libyans a measure of independence, while contact with Westerners is encouraging others to voice their thoughts more openly.

Some critics evidently feel emboldened by the closer diplomatic ties and fresh foreign investment that are increasing pressure on the government to answer allegations of human rights abuses.

A campaign to free Mr. Jahmi, for example, came to the attention of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who pressed Mr. Jahmi's case with Colonel Qaddafi when he visited Tripoli in March. Mr. Jahmi was released less than two weeks later.

By then he had become something of a cause cilhbre in the Libya-watching world, and Western as well as Arab journalists soon contacted him, eager to hear an alternative political voice within the country.

He gave interviews to the American-financed Arabic satellite television station, Al Hurra, and the Dubai-based satellite television station, Al Arabiya. It was on Al Arabiya that Mr. Jahmi made his most damning remarks about Colonel Qaddafi. The broadcast reached people across the Arab world, including many in Libya. Talk of the remarkable outburst quickly spread.

"Many people heard this, and it made Mr. Jahmi famous," said a Libyan man who asked not to be identified.

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