An Interview With Human Rights Activist Mohamed Eljahmi
New Vilna Review
Mohamed Eljahmi is a Lybian-American human rights activist who has spoken out forcefully and eloquently on the abusive nature of the present regime in Lybia. Mr. Eljahmi recently took some time to answer a few questions from the New Vilna Review, via email, about his work as a human rights advocate and the story of his brother who was imprisoned for democratic political activism in Lybia.
NVR: You recently spoke as part of a panel at an event organized by the American Jewish Committee in Newton, Massachusetts, to mark the 62nd anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. One of the things you mentioned was the importance of continuing the struggle for human rights in Libya and in putting pressure on the Libyan government – what are some steps that people can take to do this?
As an American citizen I value our quest for security and economic prosperity. But we should also understand that the people of Libya have been living under a brutal dictatorship. They also deserve security and economic prosperity. As I said, in Libya, the fulfillment of citizens' needs are tied to their loyalty to Mr. Qadhafi, who has American blood on his hand. Can we trust Mr. Qadhafi to keep his word, that he renounced terrorism? In the absence of checks and balances in Libya, Mr. Qadhafi financed acts of terror against our citizens and elsewhere. So genuine democratic reform in Libya benefits Libyans and us, because a peaceful Libyan government will never blow up a civilian airplane in mid-air. We can use Libya’s need for technology and Mr. Qadhafi’s desire for more political recognition as pressure tools to make the dictator loosen his grip on power.
NVR:Your own life has been touched by tragedy in the arena of human rights, can you tell us a little about your brother’s life and work as an advocate for democratic reform and human rights in Libya? How can people find out more about his case?
Fathi Eljahmi was a unique man, who carried his life with dignity and grace. He was a civil engineer and started his career working for the Libyan Ministry for Public works in 1968. After the coup, he was put in charge of a government owned construction company, where he supervised the construction of a major highway and a bridge in the east of Libya. He was then appointment Governor of the Gulf province and after that he was appointed as chairman of the National Planning Commission. He left public service in early 1973 to start his own engineering business. But he continued his advocacy for reform in Libya and visited the US in 1970’s. He met with the late Senator William Fulbright. Unfortunately, there is no website for Fathi Eljahmi and his struggle for reform. But a simple Google search can fetch many articles about his story. Fathi’s story is that of courage and perseverance. But also the time frame that the world heard of his was short and he wasn’t given an opportunity to speak publicly again. I remember his struggle and the pain he suffered everyday and especially during time of trouble. Fathi was imprisoned for seven years and mostly in isolation from the outside world, without radio, TV or even books. He only had intermittent access to the Quran. He was subjected to abuse, torture and neglect, which ultimately led to this death. For two years, we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. For two years, he was denied access to medications for diabetes, hypertension and a heart condition. In 2008, Dr. Scott Allen from PHR told me, “Your brother is a courageous man. He endured a lot. I can’t imagine myself or anyone surviving what he has gone through.”
One more thing, the intermittent denial of Fathi’s access to the Quran was also a psychological form of torture, because it is important for a dying Muslim to be able to have access to the Islamic testimony. The regime of Mr. Qadhafi treated my late brother so savagely, and why? Because Fathi spoke the truth to power and offered a political program to heal Libya and define its relationship with the outside world.
NVR: As a human rights advocate, how do you think the UN is doing on issues of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa? What are some areas in which there is room for improvement?
The UN is doing very little. In fact the entire world is doing very little. The problem in the Middle East and North Africa is that regional issues trump local ones. This type of thinking began in the 1940's and remains true to this date. In the UN, there is an alliance between African, Arab and Islamic countries, which are mostly ruled by oppressive regimes. Therefore, the UN Human Rights Council is highly politicized and these countries stand together against any serious attempt to help human rights. In addition, countries like Russia and China also want the status quo of ineffective HRC, because they are guilty of human rights violations. To help this, all advocates must stand together and recognize that human rights transcend ethnic or religious barriers. The pain of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and others is the same. There should also be a specific requirement that countries who violate the UN Human Rights Declaration shouldn’t be put in position to judge democratic countries who respect human rights.
NVR: What role should Western democratic governments play in helping to encourage/enforce respect for human rights in places like Lybia?
As I mentioned earlier, we need to make human rights an important piece of our discussions with Libya. The Libyan regime must understand that, when we care about human rights for Libya, it is a matter of our security and also helps to build people-to-people relationships. It saddens me that as a brother of Fathi Eljahmi, the British and Scottish government went out of their way to insure the release of Abdel Baset Ali Al-Megrahi, the Libyan terrorist, who was convicted of mass murder. Conversely, the British and Scottish government did very little or nothing for Fathi Eljahmi who shared the same values as the British and Scottish governments. To Libyans the message is clear, the West is insincere about reform because it is motivated by money and greed.
NVR: Can you tell us a little about your own background as a human rights advocate and the work that you are doing in this area?
I am a software engineer. I collaborate with various organizations. I believe in strategic alliance for the common good. I do my best to reach out across religious or ethnic barriers because as I mentioned, the human rights pain is the same. For example, Mr. Qadhafi ordered the desecration of the graves of his Muslim opponents. Also according to Raphael Luzon, the head of Libyan Jewish Committee in the UK, Mr. Qadhafi ordered the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Benghazi and Tripoli. In addition, Mr. Qadhafi forced the Italian settlers to dig up their graves of their dead and take them back to Italy. It becomes clear that Mr. Qadhafi's disrespect for human dignity is common and consistent regardless of the religious or ethnic background of the victim.
NVR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. As an American citizen, I feel fortunate to live in a free and open society. I hope that in my life time, I would see a free and open Libya with a government for the people and by the people. And that Libya becomes a true model for justice and peaceful coexistence. Also, historically speaking, political change in Libya has come as a result of outside intervention or influence.
For more information on the case of Fathi Eljahmi, please click here.
Copyright 2010 The New Vilna Review.
This interview has been edited for clarity and layout purposes.