March 23, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

Talking to Tripoli: Meet Fathi Eljahmi, a Libyan Freedom-Fighter

One contribution any citizen of the Free World can make to those still living under tyranny is simply to learn their names. Especially, get to know the individuals among them who at great risk champion liberty and rule of law–the Andrei Sakharovs, the Lech Walesas, the Aung San Suu Kyis. More than any official group bearing that hallowed label of “multilateral,” such people, however scattered and beleaguered, are the best hope of democratic progress in their own countries and a more peaceful world for us all.

Meet Fathi Eljahmi, a Libyan patriot, 62, balding, outspoken–and released earlier this month from detention spent mostly in Libya's notorious Abu Salim prison, where Col. Moammar Gadhafi likes to house his nation's political dissidents. Mr. Eljahmi was sentenced in 2002 to five years in prison for stating at a “People's Conference” in suburban Tripoli that reform in Libya would require a constitution, free speech and democracy.

Thanks to U.S. pressure, Mr. Eljahmi was released early, 18 months into a sentence he should never have had to serve in the first place. Because he continues to speak up for the basic rights of his fellow countrymen, Mr. Eljahmi is still far from safe. Since he returned from prison to his Tripoli home on March 12, Libyan authorities have threatened to kidnap his wife and daughters, cut the phone line on which his son's Internet cafe–and the family livelihood–depended, kept his home under surveillance, and followed and interrogated Libyans who have come to see him.

It took great courage for Mr. Eljahmi to give an interview to the U.S.-based Arabic TV station, Al-Hurrah. On its March 16 broadcast to the Arab world he said: “I share with President Bush and all of the American people human sentiments and desires for freedom, democracy and propagation of democracy, human rights, right of ownership and right to form a civil society.”

It took courage for Mr. Eljahmi to speak with me from Tripoli earlier this week, relying on a cell phone (since his land line has been cut) and the interpreting services of his brother, Mohamed Eljahmi. Mohamed is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Massachusetts, and last year he co-founded a private group, the American Libyan Freedom Alliance. Mohamed and I spoke with Fathi via a conference call, in which Fathi explained that in Libya, now in its 35th year under Gadhafi, there is “internally a lot of dissent.” He reeled off a list of academics held in Abu Salim prison for no reason other than their push for pluralism, including two men sentenced to death: Salem Abu Hanak and Abdallah Izzedine.

In Gadhafi's Libya, a nation with a political system so warped that it is a crime to engage in the private practice of law, anyone who speaks out or forms any organization not authorized by Gadhafi can be put to death. This was the sentence handed down on a group of soccer fans in Benghazi who took part in unauthorized street demonstrations after a game four years ago.

Now there may be a chance of change. President Bush's 2002 call for democracy in the Arab world has been heard. The fall of Saddam Hussein has been well noted. Forces for change have indeed been set in motion, not only in Baghdad, but in places such as Syria, where protesters have recently dared to risk the horror of Syrian prisons in order to demand an end to repression, and in Lebanon, where another brave patriot, Muhamad Mugraby, even after a stint in prison last summer, continues his fight for justice and rule of law.

In Libya, in the context of a sinking economy and a ringside seat for the fall of Saddam, Gadhafi agreed last December to give up his programs for weapons of mass murder. For this bid to come in from the cold, he was lauded by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The signs so far suggest that Gadhafi is making good on his promise. In the short term, we in the Free World are safer.

But whether we consider such short-term safety enough, or follow through to keep faith with those brave enough to push in their own countries for genuine democratic change is the kind of choice we are increasingly likely to face. Back in December, while pundits on U.S. TV talk shows were discussing the Gadhafi disarmament deal, so were inmates in the prison yard of Abu Salim, says Fathi Eljahmi. There, jailed dissidents wondered whether, among these high matters of state, the plight of the 5.4 million Libyans living under Gadhafi would be forgotten.

“Libyans view the WMD agreement between Gadhafi and the U.S. as a deal that trades WMD for the liberty of the Libyan people,” Mr. Eljahmi says.

Inside Libya, Gadhafi's choice has not translated into a sudden conversion to enlightened government. Rather, it was a calculated bid by Gadhafi to keep power. U.S. recognition, let alone praise, brings with it enhanced status, authority, and an implication that sanctions may be lifted, oil deals may flow, Gadhafi's coffers may be re-filled and his reign of repression may carry on unrebuked.

It is a promising sign that last month Gadhafi allowed a visit from Amnesty International for the first time in 15 years. But against that must be set Amnesty's findings of “a continued policy of repression of political dissent in Libyan society.”

Risking a return to the Libyan prisons infamous for the incommunicado detention and torture that Amnesty recently documented, Mr. Eljahmi offers the hope that with enough pressure from the U.S. and European Union, Gadhafi's regime might “review its options and engage in a dialogue,” by which, as Mr. Eljahmi further explains, he means the kind of political roundtable that in 1980s Poland became the prelude to an open society. He is at pains to underscore that in pressing for internal reform in Libya, “I need the support of the U.S. and the international community.”

Would it be asking too much to propose that if John Kerry, or leaders of the European Union, were to replace the endless cries for multilateralism (meaning, most often, the tyrant-infested United Nations) with a constantly cited honor roll of names such as that of Fathi Eljahmi, there would be far less reason to worry about the future of our own free societies?


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.