On June 28, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns opened a U.S. liaison office in Tripoli, Libya, reestablishing direct diplomatic relations after a near quarter-century break. The move caps a months-long effort to improve relations. In December 2003, Libcyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi announced that he would dismantle his weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. On April 23, 2004, the White House announced that the U.S. would ease its economic embargo against Libya.
President Bush has expressed his enthusiasm for the process. Speaking in the East Room of the White House on March 12, Bush noted the release Libyan dissident Fathi El-Jahmi, and said, “You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things.”
Well, maybe Libya has changed her rhetoric, but not her attitude. Speaking in Cairo on March 24, Saif Islam Qaddafi, the Libyan strongman’s son, lectured Arab governments about democracy. “Instead of shouting and criticizing the American initiative, you have to bring democracy to your countries,” Saif said. But, as Saif spoke, Libyan security forces surrounded the home of El-Jahmi, shortly thereafter arresting him, his wife, and his son. Libyans interpret the move as a signal from Qaddafi that Bush is insincere and weak.
As Burns legitimized Qaddafi with a new State Department office in Tripoli, I sat down with Husayn Shafei in a conference room at the American Enterprise Institute. Just as Burns has not met with El-Jahmi or made his arrest a stumbling block in Foggy Bottom’s drive to reestablish ties with Tripoli, State Department officials have not sat down with Shafei. His story might be inconvenient, but he will repeat it today at 10 A.M. at the Washington office of Freedom House.
In December 1988, Shafei was a 20-year-old electrical-engineering student at a technical institute in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. In Qaddafi’s Libya, students at high schools, vocational institutes, and universities must attend mandatory sessions on why the political philosophy of the great leader is the only acceptable ideology, superior to democracy. When the speaker asked his captive audience if they had any questions, Shafei stood up and, in front of his peers, said “Libya is not democratic. We should have [political] parties and an open media. We should negotiate with different groups and discuss ideas.”
Less than two weeks later, Libyan police surrounded Shafei’s home, arresting him. Hooded, they hustled him onto a military flight and took him to Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. He spent the next three months in a hot, humid, poorly ventilated nine-square-meter room, with 21 other political prisoners. All were beaten; Shafei still bears the scars of his torture; part of his ear has also been shaved off. After three months, he finally met an interrogator who fired off questions: “Why do you speak of democracy? Are you a member of a secret party?” The line of questioning was serious. Revolutionary Command Council Law 71 mandates the death penalty for political-party membership.
Shafei convinced his interrogators that he may have been naïve and idealistic, but was no political-party member. Classified as a low-political-risk prisoner, he returned to his cell where he was subject to mental and physical abuse for the next eight years (he never had a trial). His family could visit him for ten minutes every five months. Neither he nor other Abu Salim prisoners saw any representative from the United Nations or the Red Crescent during that time; a researcher from Amnesty International did visit.
Prison officials assigned Shafei work as a cook; he prepared food and helped deliver rations to the Abu Salim’s approximately 1,200 political prisoners. Shafei was in the kitchen on June 29, 1996, when a scuffle broke out between guards and prisoners in Abu Salim. Guards killed seven prisoners and wounded 17. In the melee, prisoners seized two guards. Abdullah al-Sanusi, Qaddafi’s brother-in-law, led negotiations. (Al-Sanusi is a close confidant of Qaddafi, implicated both in the Lockerbie bombing and the subsequent downing of UTA flight 772). A delegation of four prisoners met al-Sanusi and outlined demands: Treatment for the wounded, basic rights, and healthcare for those suffering from the tuberculosis endemic in the prison. Al-Sanusi agreed.
One hundred twelve sick and wounded left the compound to go to the hospital. They never made it. Out of sight of the main gate, al-Sanusi had them shot. The following day, security personnel under al-Sanusi’s command set up anti-aircraft guns on the roof overlooking the courtyard. At 11 A.M., al-Sanusi’s men began shooting into crowds of prisoners. At 1:30 P.M., soldiers wielding Kalashnikov’s entered the compound to kill those who had escaped the initial violence. At 2 P.M., a crew of guards finished the job, walking among the dead and dying, firing pistol shots into their heads. Over the course of the next three days, guards loaded the corpses onto wheelbarrows, dumping them into a trench on prison grounds. First, though, they removed watches from the prisoners, giving them to Shafei to wash. Prisoners in adjacent cellblocks–and residents outside the prison–heard the shooting but could do nothing. The prisoners interviewed by Amnesty International perished.
On the first anniversary of the start of military action to liberate Iraq, Bush declared, “We have set out to encourage reform and democracy in the greater Middle East as the alternatives to fanaticism, resentment, and terror.” Bush may have been sincere. But, there is a growing gap between his rhetoric and action which is straining America’s credibility throughout the Middle East, doing far more damage among residents of the region than the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Bush should take a lesson from 20 years ago: Against the advice of the State Department, Ronald Reagan pressed for the release of dissidents and refusniks in the Soviet Union. If Bush truly believes in freedom and liberty, it is time he speaks up for Fathi el-Jahmi and Libya’s other political prisoners who, unlike Shafei, still suffer under Qaddafi’s brutal grasp. He may want to order his assistant secretary of state to quit the company of the Libyan dictator, and instead meet the freedom-seeking Libyans who today have again filled the ghost barracks of the Abu Salim prison.
–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.