Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

RIGHTS: Political Prisoners Shadow Rice Visit to Libya

Zainab Mineeia

WASHINGTON, Sep 5 2008 (IPS) - Human right organisations are urging U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is touring North African nations over the next several days, to press for the release of Fathi Aljahmi, a long-time political prisoner during her visit to Libya Friday.

Her visit to Tripoli, long sought by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, will seal a gradual process of normalised relations between the two countries, which were broken off in 1981 after Libya was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

While U.S. oil companies, which hope to restore their status as one of Libya’s most important business partners, have been eager to normalise ties with Tripoli, human rights groups have called for Washington to demand that Gaddafi improve rights conditions as the price for deeper engagement.

In a letter to Rice sent Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged her to demand the release of political prisoners in Libya, end torture and eliminate laws that punish outspoken critics of the current Gaddafi regime.

“By raising your concerns at the highest levels, you will show that respect for human rights stands at the core of U.S.-Libya relations, and that further development of the relationship depends on Libya bringing its human rights practices up to international standards,” the letter said.

Of particular concern is Aljahmi, age 66, who was arrested in 2002 after calling for free speech and political reform and has been detained nearly continuously since then.

Aljahmi’s brother, Mohamed, who lives in Boston, said that it was wrong for Rice to meet with Gaddafi, while his brother was in detention. Aljahmi suffers from severe health conditions and is forcibly confined in a state hospital.

In January, Mohamed Aljahmi wrote a column in the Washington Post urging Rice to cancel a meeting with Libya’s foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, but she went ahead with the meeting anyway.

“The administration does not appear to understand that Gaddafi’s success in silencing my brother wounds its credibility not only in Libya but throughout the region,” he wrote.

Human rights organisations have pushed for the release of all political prisoners in Libya and released statements and sent letters to Rice expressing their concerns.

“Secretary Rice must tell the Libyan Government in no uncertain terms that Mr. Aljahmi should be released from his hospital confinement and free to get the medical treatment he requires,” Frank Donaghue, director of Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group, said in a statement released this week. “Any further normalisation of relations between Libya and the U.S. must be put on hold until Mr. Aljahmi’s indefinite detention is ended.”

The HRW letter urged Rice use her visit to encourage Libyan authorities “to end these abusive practices”.

At a special State Department briefing on Rice’s North African trip on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said that he could not say for certain if the Aljahmi case would be specifically addressed.

“I typically do not give readouts of what are private discussions. We have a variety of bilateral issues that we will be raising, among those is the human rights issue, broadly speaking and specifically speaking,” Welch said.

Asked if he thought that Aljahmi’s release would be a good-faith gesture from Gaddafi, Welch replied, “Well, we think he should have been released before.”

Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 military coup that toppled King Idris I, had recently described the relationship with the U.S. as “neither friends nor enemies”. In 1986, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan called Gaddafi ” the mad dog of the Middle East”.

Libya had been on the U.S list of countries that sponsor terrorism for 27 years, and bilateral diplomatic relations between Libya and the U.S. were broken off in 1972.

U.S. oil companies, however, continued operations there until 1986 when the Reagan administration ordered them out after accusing Libya of responsibility for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen. Two years later, it accused Tripoli of bombing a commercial airliner, Pan Am Flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 passengers and crew.

As a result of the bombings, the U.S. and Britain succeeded in persuading the U.N. Security Council to impose far-reaching diplomatic and economic sanctions in 1992. They were lifted in 2003 when Libya agreed to pay 2.7 billion dollars to the families of victims of the plane bombing and dismantle its programmes for the production of weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. lifted its own bilateral sanctions the following year and has since gradually built up its diplomatic presence and restored full diplomatic relations in 2006. U.S. oil companies returned to Libya in 2004.

In that same year, the current Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden, met Gaddafi in Tripoli and urged the Libyan leader to release Aljahmi. Several days later, an appeals court gave Aljahmi a one-year suspended sentence and ordered his release. One month later, however, Aljahmi was re-arrested.

Amnesty International, a worldwide advocacy group for internationally recognised human rights for all, believes that Aljahmi is a prisoner of conscience – detained solely for the non-violent exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

The charges against Aljahmi appear to relate to his contact with U.S. diplomats before his arrest and to his outspoken interviews with satellite news channels, including Dubai-based Al Arabiya and U.S.-based Al Hurra, during his brief respite from confinement in March 2004.

Aljahmi’s health is reportedly deteriorating, and without proper treatment his life may be in grave danger, according to human rights groups.

Rice’s visit is aimed at trying up loose ends between Washington and Tripoli, particularly with regard to the final settlement of claims arising from the PanAm bombing, in order to pave the way for additional U.S. investment in the country. Libya is estimated to have 3.5 percent of the world’s oil reserves and has built up a 50 billion dollar sovereign wealth fund which U.S. companies are eager to tap.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags