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09.03.09

The Bomber and the Dissident

One got a glorious homecoming. The other was left to rot. Bill Frelick on the paradoxes of justice, Libya-style—and the perils of pretending Gaddafi has changed his stripes.

The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, cited “compassion” as the reason for releasing Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi after he served only eight years of a minimum 27-year sentence for the murder of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Megrahi may make a cameo appearance as Libya celebrates at the 40th anniversary of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s coup this week—a festive event featuring military parades and fireworks. The image of the returning Megrahi kissing Gaddafi's hand stands in marked contrast to my memory of another terminally ill Libyan who was denied such a homecoming.

Abdel Nasser Al-Rabbasi is serving a 15-year sentence in Abu Salim prison for writing a novel about economic corruption and human rights in Libya. “I don’t know why I was imprisoned,” he told me. “I didn’t carry a gun. I only carried a pen.”

In April, I sat with two of my Human Rights Watch colleagues at the bedside of a terribly frail Fathi Al-Jahmi, Libya’s most famous political dissident, in an isolated, guarded room in a Tripoli hospital. We had no doubt that we were seeing a man on his deathbed. Al-Jahmi did not have the strength to lift his hand or to speak beyond a faint whisper. His body was riddled with bedsores, his tongue was parched dry as sand—but his eyes still darted in fear at the sight of his minders.

Megrahi was convicted of mass murder. Al-Jahmi’s only “crime” was his nonviolent criticism of Gaddafi. During much of his 6 1/2 years in prison, Al-Jahmi was held in solitary confinement and denied medical care. As his body slowly, torturously wasted away, Human Rights Watch, among others, pleaded for his release—to no avail.

The dying Al-Jahmi could barely squeeze my hand, but he did manage to communicate to us his desire to return to his family home in Benghazi. When it was clear he had only weeks, if not days, to live, his comatose body was loaded on a plane to Jordan. He died 17 days later.

Of course, the Libyan authorities’ evident lack of compassion for Al-Jahmi should have no bearing on Megrahi. Acts of mercy should not be dependent on a quid pro quo, notwithstanding recent reports suggesting there may have been links between Megrahi’s release and the award of British oil contracts in Libya—allegations the Brits vigorously deny.

But Libya’s treatment of Al-Jahmi does demonstrate that there may indeed be a wide gulf between Libya’s behavior and the image of the country that Western governments have been working to burnish as they seek commercial and political ties with Tripoli. These ties are coming together quickly. The European Commission is negotiating a framework agreement for future EU-Libyan cooperation. Its vice president, Jacques Barrot, is hoping to sweeten the deal with a visit to Tripoli with €80 million in hand for projects aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and asylum seekers through Libya to Europe.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy was in Libya this week not only to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s rule but also the one-year anniversary of Italy’s bilateral "Friendship Treaty" with the country. He has pledged to spend $200 million per year in Libya for the next 25 years. When Italy began joint naval patrols with Libya in May to return African boat migrants and asylum seekers, it wanted Libya to appear as a legitimate partner that would treat them properly. The nagging truth, however, is that Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no asylum law or procedure. Gaddafi’s regime also has a well-established record of treating migrants brutally and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Similarly, when the United States enlisted Libya—previously on its list as a state sponsor of terrorism—as a partner in its global war on terror, did it stop to consider how Libya might treat the terror suspects “rendered” there? Perhaps they couldn’t be treated any worse than at the hands of the CIA in black sites in Afghanistan, but certainly U.S. responsibility for their fate doesn’t end simply by putting them on planes in the dead of night. One of the terrorist suspects that the CIA rendered to Libya, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, was found dead in his cell in May, his death ruled a suicide, days after I met him in Abu Salim prison. (The U.S. government pressed for an investigation; officials have to my knowledge not commented on whether they were satisfied with the Libyan finding that he died by his own hand.)

There have been some positive signs of change in Libya, to be sure. The government is revising its penal code, and there is some expanded space for free expression. But Libya continues to hold political prisoners, even after their sentences end. And, as they did with Fathi Al-Jahmi, the Libyan authorities still imprison people for nonviolently expressing their beliefs. I met another such man in Abu Salim prison, Abdel Nasser Al-Rabbasi, who is serving a 15-year sentence for writing a novel about economic corruption and human rights in Libya. “I don’t know why I was imprisoned," he told me. "I didn’t carry a gun. I only carried a pen.”

As they line up to do business with Libya, Western governments call into question their own compassion when they show no regard for the African migrants summarily returned to Libya, the bound-and-gagged terror suspects rendered there, and those who languish in Libyan prisons for saying the wrong thing.

For its part, Libya could put some of the Megrahi controversy behind it by moving forward with the reforms under way in the justice system so it meets basic international standards. A good place to start would be by freeing the imprisoned writer Rabbasi, a matter of justice, if not of compassion.

Bill Frelick is director of the Refugee Policy Program at Human Rights Watch.