June 14, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

Will Anyone Answer?

Allowing Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi to make a mockery of U.S. policy is not a good idea, especially not when the Bush administration has been talking Gadhafi up for the past 18 months as one of our newest allies in the war on terror and an example to other enemy regimes of how to win America's respect and goodwill.

Gadhafi has lots to snicker about right now, at our expense–as the U.S. continues to give him a free pass over manhandling Libya's most prominent democratic dissident, Fathi Eljahmi. The 64-year-old Mr. Eljahmi has a habit of speaking up for freedom in Libya every time he gets a chance. For this, he has been spent most of the past four years in a series of prisons or–in the more polite lingo applied to his current caged condition–the state security detention facilities of Gadhafi's Great Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriya.

It may be in some ways unfair to focus on Mr. Eljahmi, for he is just one of an untold but significant number of Libyans who have suffered imprisonment or death for defying the despotism of Gadhafi, who since seizing power in a 1969 coup has tyrannized Libya for the past 36 years.

Some of Gadhafi's critics have vanished into places such as Abu Salim prison, near Tripoli–where state authorities massacred hundreds of inmates during a prison revolt in 1996, and where Mr. Eljahmi served time in 2002-03. Many have been harassed or beaten up, or simply disappeared. At the moment, Libya's dissident diaspora is sending around stories of the murder of a Libyan journalist, 32-year-old Daif Al Ghazal, whose bruised and stabbed body was found June 2 in the city of Benghazi, according to the Paris-based monitoring group Reporters Without Borders. Mr. Al Ghazal, after working for years for a pro-Gadhafi newspaper (no other kind is permitted in Libya) had begun writing articles critical of corruption within the Libyan regime, published on an Arabic London-based Web site, libya-alyoum.com (“Libya Today”).

But Mr. Eljahmi's case is highly emblematic, both for his courage in telling the truth about Libya's predatory regime and for the cynicism with which Gadhafi has tried to shut him up. Gadhafi's grand moment of rapprochement with the U.S., let us recall, came when he agreed in late 2003 to stop trying to produce weapons of mass murder and shipped his nuclear-bomb production kit–lock, stock and Chinese blueprints–to the U.S. Along with that, Gadhafi made free with Libya's state purse to pay blood money to the families of those murdered in various of his terrorist bombings over the years–including the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Gadhafi also began sharing some intelligence about Al Qaeda–which, having adopted some of his own tactics, had been giving him trouble back home. In exchange, the U.S. greatly eased restrictions on trade with Libya, after the lifting of U.N. sanctions. Washington opened a diplomatic mission in Tripoli, gave a green light to most investors, and waved ahead the parade of oilmen and western politicians who have since been paying court to the all-new improved Gadhafi.

But that was only part of the deal. To President Bush's credit–which on the Libyan front is now eroding fast–Washington also made clear to Gadhafi that America also expected democratic reform. When Sen. Joseph Biden became one of the first U.S. politicians to visit the all-new-and-reforming Libya in early March 2004, he specifically asked Gadhafi to release Mr. Eljahmi from prison. Gadhafi complied. Mr. Bush then celebrated this compliance, calling it an “encouraging step” and praising Mr. Eljahmi's courage in advocating free speech and democracy.

Mr. Eljahmi was allowed to return to his home in Tripoli, where he was reunited with his wife and one of his sons–who was running an Internet cafe business out of the household. For about two weeks, Mr. Eljahmi enjoyed the freedom to speak out, giving interviews to several international outlets, including this Web site. Gadhafi basked in groundbreaking visits from America's Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then, less than three weeks after Mr. Eljahmi's release, Gadhafi's security squads surrounded the Eljahmi home in Tripoli, threatened Mr. Eljahmi, assaulted him and took him back into custody, along with his wife and son.

Since then, Gadhafi has been playing a canny game with Western opinion, not only inviting businesses to invest in and revamp the ruin he has made of Libya's economy, but even allowing human rights groups to peer into some of Libya's prisons–and visit the still-incarcerated Mr. Eljahmi. Last year, Amnesty International was allowed into the country. More recently Gadhafi released Mr. Eljahmi's wife and son, and this year he creaked open the door, first to Physicians for Human Rights in February, then to Human Rights Watch, to visit Libya and while there, to look in on Mr. Eljahmi. Both reported that he is much isolated and needs care, but is basically surviving.

What to make of this?

The answer is that pressure from the U.S. and other democratic nations does matter to Libya's regime. But Gadhafi since last year has been testing the limits, to see just how much he can get away with. It seems, unfortunately, that he can get away with a lot. The release of Mr. Eljahmi's wife and son, for example, was accompanied by a warning delivered via the ransacking of their Tripoli home, followed by what Libyan sources report was attempted arson that finally drove family members to abandon the place.

It is heartening that a doctor has been allowed to see Mr. Eljahmi in recent months, and it is encouraging that Human Rights Watch has met with him as well. But the real issue for Libya–and the implied message to other nations saddled with despotic regimes–involves less the precise conditions of detention than the vital issue of whether or not democratic dissidents are silenced. And somehow, between Gadhafi's politicking and the apparently endless excitement in the democratic world over such matters as Koran-handling at Guantanomo, Mr. Eljahmi's case has pretty much sunk below the radar. In the 15 months since his arrest, his voice has not been heard outside the confines of Libyan security detention quarters.

Mr. Eljahmi did manage to send a message that bears repeating and amplifying loudly enough not only to be heard in Washington, but to echo back into Libya itself. Visited in custody by Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch last month (Mr. Abrahams shot the photos accompanying this column), Mr. Eljahmi asked him to pass along greetings to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the rest of the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress, with the message: “Tell them we are ready for democracy.”

In Washington, where Ms. Rice recently described democracy and human rights as “nonnegotiable,” someone needs to answer Mr. Eljahmi.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.