Not buying Libya's ruse
"Fathi Eljahmi, shown here near Tripoli in 2005, three years into his ongoing imprisonment for speaking out for democracy in Libya." (Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch 2005)
There were few people in the great state of Massachusetts as glad to see the backside of the Bush administration as Mohamed Eljahmi.
Eljahmi lives in Chelmsford and works as a software engineer. But his real vocation is trying to secure the release of his 68-year-old brother, Fathi Eljahmi, Libya's preeminent dissident and political prisoner.
In 2002, Fathi Eljahmi, a successful businessman and engineer, had the temerity to call for free speech, a constitution, a free press, and a civil society in Libya.
For this, Moammar Khadafy, the Libyan dictator, locked him up. Aside from a two-week respite in 2004, secured by Senator Joe Biden, Fathi Eljahmi has been locked up since for doing no more than calling for the same democratic rights and institutions the United States has been promoting across the globe.
Mohamed Eljahmi's campaign to have his brother released has the support of human rights organizations worldwide. It did not have the support of the Bush administration, which spent years appeasing oil-rich Libya and sucking up to Khadafy, whose regime has killed more Americans than Saddam Hussein ever did. For all his tough talk about despots, George Bush was not exactly in a position to demand the release of a single political prisoner in Tripoli when he had authorized the detention of hundreds, including Libyans, without charge in Guantánamo.
Khadafy and his acolytes have been spending millions, rebranding his regime's outlaw image. They have been welcomed at some of this country's most prestigious think tanks and universities, including Harvard, where Khadafy's son and likely successor, Saif Al-Islam, was hosted recently and has worked closely with Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. If you want irony, the last time Fathi Eljahmi visited his brother in Boston, he stayed at the Harvard Club.
Last month the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James succeeded in getting an op-ed by Khadafy placed in the Globe and the Washington Times.
Pitted against rich, well-connected PR firms and universities that stand to gain prestige and money by assisting with Libya's rehabilitation from pariah status, Mohamed Eljahmi carries on his quixotic campaign from a small, cluttered office in his house.
Mohamed Eljahmi was sitting in that house when he came across Khadafy's piece in the Globe. His heart fluttered. Could it be Khadafy had decided to announce the release of Fathi Eljahmi? Or, perhaps, 20 years after Libyan agents retaliated for the US bombing of Tripoli by blowing up Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Khadafy would apologize for the mass murder of civilians?
Um, no. Khadafy's piece was a heartfelt plea for those bullies in NATO to back off his pals in Russia. "I couldn't believe it," Mohamed Eljahmi said. "How can Khadafy lecture anyone?"
A Globe editor said that after receiving the pitch from the PR firm, the paper called the Libyan embassy in Washington to confirm Khadafy wrote the piece. Satisfied with its authenticity, and with editors believing it was "well reasoned," the paper ran it.
Given Biden's previous interest in his brother's case, Mohamed Eljahmi greeted the change of power at the White House this week more personally than most. But he knows that powerful people, from Washington to Cambridge, consider his brother's imprisonment not worth getting worked up over now that Libya has renounced international terrorism, whatever it does to its own people.
As Khadafy rehabilitates his image, Fathi Eljahmi's health debilitates. He has diabetes and can barely walk. His family is harassed by the secret police, their electricity bill an inexplicable $600 a month.
"While Khadafy's son is being wined and dined at Harvard, and he gets published in the Globe, Khadafy is doing what he always did, which is crush dissent and abuse human rights," Mohamed Eljahmi said. "He must be laughing at all of us."