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The Boston Globe
Thursday, 27 December, 2007

A Battle for Libya

A battle for Libya
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 27, 2007

Fathi Eljahmi, the most prominent pro-democracy activist in Libya, lives in a small cell in a large prison outside Tripoli. His brother, Mohamed, lives in a small ranch house in Chelmsford.

more stories like thisA couple of weeks ago, as the preposterous, preening Moammar Khadafy was pitching his Bedouin tent in the garden of the Hotel de Marigny in Paris, Mohamed Eljahmi was sitting in a small office, just off his kitchen, tapping out e-mails.

While Khadafy, the Libyan dictator, uses petrodollars to buy legitimacy, Mohamed Eljahmi uses the Internet and the telephone to remind people that Khadafy is a phony and two-bit tyrant.

"My brother called for democracy," Mohamed Eljahmi said. "He called for free speech, the rule of law, a free press, a constitution, the creation of a civil society. For this, Khadafy threw him in jail."

Khadafy used to love blowing up airplanes. With people in them. His agents took down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. His agents also blew up a French airliner some years ago, but that didn't stop the French government from receiving Khadafy as if he was the curator of a Jerry Lewis film festival.

Not long after Khadafy pitched his tent, he and the French announced they had consummated some $15 billion in business deals - about $4 billion for Airbus airplanes.

The official line is that Khadafy has renounced terrorism and dismantled a secret program to develop nuclear weapons, so the West must reward Khadafy and do business with him.

Which is OK if it doesn't bother you that Fathi Eljahmi, 66 years old and in failing health, has been in jail for most of the last five years for nothing more than calling for Libyans to enjoy the same freedoms that most everybody in the West takes for granted.

Mohamed Eljahmi came to Massachusetts in 1978, just before the Blizzard hit.

"First time I saw snow," he said.

Fathi, a civil engineer, encouraged him to come here, and paid for him to attend Northeastern University.

"Fathi values knowledge," says Mohamed, a software engineer.

The last time the two brothers were together was 1981. Fathi stayed at the Harvard Club. "I asked him, 'Why not leave? Why not come here?' He said, 'That's easy for you to say.' "

Fathi had a wife and seven children in Libya. He also felt an obligation to be there when Libya had a chance to leave the league of rogue nations.

Mohamed Eljahmi says Khadafy hasn't changed, he's just changed tactics. Instead of blowing up planes, Khadafy buys them. Instead of terrorizing the outside world, he terrorizes Libya's 6 million people with a secret police force that tolerates no dissent. Khadafy figured out that as long as you do business with the West, you can pretty much do whatever you want to your own people.

And so Fathi Eljahmi is stuck in a dungeon while Khadafy is feted at state dinners and contract signings.

"People who think Khadafy is reformed, they do an injustice not just to my brother, but to all Libyans," Mohamed said. "He isn't holding just my brother prisoner. He's holding all Libyans prisoner."

Mohamed Eljahmi keeps two portraits of his brother above his desk in the office off the kitchen. One shows Fathi from the last photograph taken of him before he was imprisoned, in 2002. He is clean-shaven and healthy. The other portrait, done by a Dutch artist, imagines what Fathi looks like after all these years in jail: a heavy beard, a haggard face.

Amnesty International says Fathi Eljahmi is a prisoner of conscience. It's unconscionable that more people don't know who he is.

"Sometimes I think, maybe I'm not doing enough for my brother," Mohamed Eljahmi said, looking up at the portraits.

Then, as if slapped, he thought of something, someone, and began typing out an e-mail.

A smoke detector in the hallway chirped, in need of a new battery.

It would have to wait.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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