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William Fisher: Another Lipsticked Pig?

Another Lipsticked Pig?

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 31 May 2006

Libya's "rehabilitation" as a country that has renounced WMD and state-sponsored terrorism - for which it will soon be rewarded with a real live American ambassador - provides an exquisite illustration of how the Bush administration is replacing its "spreading freedom" mantra with support for the "Global War on Terrorism."

And Libya's role as an energy source has made the administration's job much easier to sell. Its removal it from the list of state sponsors of terror follows the return to Libyan oilfields of the Oasis Group of US companies, according to a top Libyan oil official.

He said he was "positive and confident" the former pariah state would be wiped from the list, with the expected backing of the Oasis Group, comprising ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Amerada Hess.

"I would expect logically they will be willing to put the right message across to the US government to do something about it quickly," Tarek Hassan-Beck of Libya's National Oil Company told Reuters.

But the fact is that, despite a few largely symbolic adjustments, Libya remains one of the Middle East's most egregious violators of human rights.

To be fair, Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gadhafi did make good on his pledge to abolish the country's notorious People's Courts - which routinely dispatched perceived political opponents to prison or death without due process. But huge problems remain to be addressed.

There is no independent press or civil society, and all political groups must be officially approved. Libyans are not allowed to criticize the government, its political system, or its leader. Torture in detention remains a serious problem, and the Libyan security apparatus is pervasive. Past cases of forced disappearance and deaths in detention remain unaddressed and unresolved.

The jailing of political opponents also continues, despite the Libyan government's denial. Colonel al-Gadhafi said not long ago, "They [Western countries] are accusing us of having political prisoners; and I am sure this is an unjust accusation. I think that those who are in prisons have used religion, they are heretics. These are people who instead of fasting, praying and preaching good are turning religion into violence, coups d'etats, underground activities."

Arguably, the most high-profile political prisoner is Fathi al-Jahmi, 64, a former provincial governor who in 2002 decided to test Libya's "new commitment to reform." He called for free elections, a free press and the release of political prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

But al-Jahmi's case only became high profile because the efforts of human rights groups created an international outcry, followed by the widely publicized intervention of US Senator Joseph Biden. The Delaware Democrat met with al-Gadhafi and called for al-Jahmi's release. Nine days later, an appeals court gave al-Jahmi a suspended sentence of one year and ordered his release.

President George W. Bush welcomed al-Jahmi's release, saying, "It's an encouraging step toward reform in Libya."

That same day, March 12, 2005, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the US-funded al-Hurra Television, in which he repeated his call for Libya's democratization. He gave another interview to the station on March 16, in which he called al-Gadhafi a dictator.

The next day, security agents entered al-Jahmi's Tripoli house and arrested him, his wife, Fawzia, and their eldest son, Mohamed. The Internal Security Agency detained them in an undisclosed location for six months, without access to relatives or lawyers. The authorities then released al-Jahmi's son and, later, his wife.

According to the head of Libya's Internal Security Agency, Col. Tohamy Khaled, the agency was holding al-Jahmi in a special facility for his own safety and because he is "mentally deranged."

The Libyan government has repeatedly assured Human Rights Watch that al-Jahmi receives appropriate medical care and regular family visits. According to al-Jahmi's family, however, the government forbade relatives to visit between June 2005 and April 2006. His son finally got to see him for 15 minutes on April 5, in the presence of state security. Al-Jahmi has requested an international lawyer because, he says, no Libyan lawyer would dare to defend him. No such lawyer has been appointed.

Meanwhile, al-Jahmi remains in detention.

So do six health professionals arrested in 1999 - five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor - sentenced to death by firing squad for deliberately infecting 426 children with the HIV virus while working in al-Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi. A sixth Bulgarian defendant was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Nine Libyan defendants were acquitted.

The defendants had told Amnesty International that their confessions, which they later retracted, had been extracted under torture, which included electric shocks, beatings, and suspension by the arms.

On the basis of their allegations of torture, Libya's Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial. Eight members of the security forces and a doctor and a translator employed by them were also charged.

The retrial of the Bulgarian nurses has been adjourned "for procedural reasons" until June 13. The presiding judge ruled they should be detained until the trial resumes.

Last month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed the Libyan government to release the captive nurses, saying, "This is a humanitarian case and it is time for them to come home."

Another sign of Libya's "commitment to reform" is its arbitrary and indefinite detention of women and girls in "social rehabilitation" facilities. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said, "Officially portrayed as protective homes for women and girls "vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct, these facilities are de facto prisons ... far more punitive than protective. How can they be called shelters when most of the women and girls we interviewed told us they would escape if they could?"

Said Human Rights Watch: "Those being held include many women and girls in these facilities who have committed no crime, or who have completed a sentence. Some are there for no reason other than that they were raped, and are now ostracized for staining their families"honor.' Officials transferred the majority of these women and girls to these facilities against their will, while those who came voluntarily did so because no genuine shelters for victims of violence exist in Libya."

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it has become fashionable in the past few years for authoritarian governments to organize their own human rights commissions. Most of these are caricatures of toothless tigers, cosmetic bodies set up to mollify pro-democracy forces.

Whether the body set up by Colonel Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, will prove to be any different remains to be seen. Thus far, it has recommended the release of 131 political prisoners who, it says, pose no threat to the government. It also played a role in granting new trials to 86 accused members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But exactly what did the US actually get - aside from access to oil - from this devil's bargain? It seems to me that the Philadelphia Inquirer had it just about right when it editorialized, "Libya had no biological weapons, apart from some World War I-era mustard gas. The truth is, Gadhafi gave up nothing of value ... Has Libya embraced democracy? Not according to human rights groups, which say that Gadhafi remains a brutal and unstable dictator. So much for President Bush's doctrine of spreading democracy. The message here is that the United States doesn't really mind doing business with tyrants. Has Libya helped the United States in its fight against terrorism? Yes, the Gadhafi government has ratted out some of its former associates. But the Islamists have been trying to kill Gadhafi for years. We are helping him get rid of his own enemies."

It may seem like an eon ago, but in 2004, at his second inauguration, President Bush declared: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

But that was then and now is now. Now it seems that the idealism of "spreading freedom" has been replaced by the realpolitik of oil and anti-terrorism.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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