A big effort has been under way in Washington and London to pretend that Muammar Gaddafi is no longer the brutal dictator of Libya, but a reformed character and we need have no qualms about doing business with him. Roll on the contracts for oil. We were becoming accustomed to seeing Gaddafi welcomed in Paris, Rome, and New York, and finding excuses for the outrageous carry-on of his sons, at least two of whom are in the mould of Saddam’s late and unlamented boys, Uday and Qusay. And now the fate of Jaballa Matar breaks the tranquil illusion that is supposed to cover those oil contracts.
Libya has had a handful of dissidents, brave men all and made to pay for it with their liberty if not their lives. One of them is Jaballa Matar, once an army colonel, always an opponent of Gaddafi’s. In the 1980s he began to call for democracy. To save himself, he fled to Cairo. In 1990, he was kidnapped there, either by Libyan secret agents, or by Egyptian secret agents who handed him over to Libya. In 1996, the Libyans massacred 1,200 prisoners. It doesn’t bear imagining what those scenes were like. Six years or so were to pass before the news got to the world outside. Prisoners have been massacred in Egypt, and in Syria where at the Tadmor prison perhaps as many as 100 were shot down, and of course in Iran. That’s how they do things over there. Jaballa Matar managed to smuggle letters out of jail, but today the Libyans deny all knowledge of him. The unfortunate man has disappeared into the darkness of a police state.
Hisham Matar, Jaballa Matar’s son, lives in London where he has become a successful novelist. He has been the moving spirit behind an appeal to Gaddafi signed by over 200 British writers to disclose whether Jaballa Matar is alive or dead. This appeal is published in the Times. Elsewhere in the paper, Hisham Matar is quoted: “I love my adopted country, but it has really soiled itself by dealing with a criminal regime and treating it as legitimate.”
While we are on the subject of Libya, the Lockerbie bomber Abdulbaset al-Megrahi was released last August on the humanitarian grounds that he had terminal cancer and could not possibly live more than three months. Six months later, he is still alive. The 200 writers whose names are on the Matar appeal are speaking as though they had the moral authority to ask Libya for decent behaviour. Unfortunately the British authorities have shown that a Libyan refugee can call them “soiled” and be right to do so.