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Support Builds for Libyan Dissident
Advocates Want Stronger U.S. Effort to Free Democracy Activist

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Human rights activists and Western diplomats are increasingly concerned about the welfare of Fathi al-Jahmi, a leading Libyan dissident awaiting a possible death sentence while being held in solitary confinement in Libya, and who is known to have several life-threatening health conditions for which he is receiving little or no medical care. He is charged with having an unauthorized meeting two years ago with a foreign official -- believed to be a U.S. diplomat -- and campaigners are pushing the Bush administration to do more to secure his release.

Jahmi, 65, a democracy activist in Libya since the late 1970s, has been in and out of Libyan jails and survived an assassination attempt in 1990 when gunmen stormed into his house. A civil engineer, Jahmi had served as governor of Libya's oil-rich Gulf province and as head of the National Planning Committee until 1972. After 1978, when his businesses were nationalized, he became Libya's public face for democracy, free enterprise and freedom of expression.

He was imprisoned in October 2002 after delivering a speech at a conference in Tripoli calling for democracy, a free press and the release of political prisoners. He was released on March 12, 2004, after intervention by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who held a face-to-face meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to ask for Jahmi's freedom.

Jahmi and his eldest son, Mohamed, met subsequently with a U.S. diplomat at the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli to express his gratitude for the U.S. help in his release, according to his brother and human rights groups. Two U.S. diplomats later visited Jahmi at his house, said his brother, Mohammed al-Jahmi, who said members of the Libyan state security bureau were parked outside the house and threatened the family.

Fathi al-Jahmi was rearrested two weeks later and has been in jail since. "I happened to be on the phone with the family when government agents encircled his house. I could hear the sirens," his brother recalled.

Jahmi has been accused of "exchanging information with employees of a foreign state that is harmful to the country" and "scheming with foreigners during times of peace," according to a statement from the Libyan People's Bureau, or embassy, in London sent to Amnesty International in July.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says Libya's penal code imposes the death penalty on anyone who talks to or conspires with a foreign official to provoke or contribute to an attack against Libya. The United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya in May.

Jahmi's family had been trying to get indictment papers for the past two years, and this week was the first they learned of the charge, Mohammed al-Jahmi said in an e-mail.

Mohammed al-Jahmi, a software engineer in Boston who came to study in the United States in 1977 and remained here, said he was extremely concerned about his brother's health. "I know everyone is doing their best to help. Everyone at the State Department kept telling me that Libya has changed. Libya has not changed," he said. He said his brother had never called for violence but for political dialogue for change at a roundtable of Libyans.

Several members of Congress, 36 human rights organizations in the United States and abroad, and other concerned citizens plan this week to send a petition to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging them to take swift action to secure Jahmi's release. "The United States has now restored diplomatic relations with Libya," the petition says. "We urge you to use this opportunity to bring about the immediate and unconditional release of Fathi Eljahmi and all prisoners of conscience in Libya."

"We do remain concerned about Libya's human rights record," a State Department official said Monday. "We have raised Mr. al-Jahmi's case with Libyan authorities and we continue to do so since we have normalized relations. We want the Libyan government to release Fathi al-Jahmi immediately," he added.

Repeated telephone calls to Libya's ambassador to Washington, Ali Suleiman Aujali, were not returned.

In February 2005, the group Physicians for Human Rights sent a Dutch physician and prison health expert to evaluate Jahmi. The report, by Joost Jan Den Otter, said Jahmi's chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, and his inadequate care in prison, could lead to a "lethal scenario." The report warned that Jahmi was in danger of a fatal heart attack or severe kidney failure. It also described Jahmi's dismal appearance and hygiene and called his treatment "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

Three Libyan doctors confirmed the diagnosis and informed the Dutch physician that Jahmi was now receiving proper treatment. When Human Rights Watch visited him in May 2005, Jahmi had been given a haircut and cleaned up, according to a photograph taken by a representative of the group.

Jahmi's son Mohamed visited him in jail at the end of August this year and said he looked frail and ashen. Jahmi told his son that his supply of medications had run out and had not been refilled.

The complex U.S.-Libyan relationship deteriorated in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. military strike against Tripoli that targeted Gaddafi's residential compound and killed his young daughter. The airstrike was in retaliation for the bombing 10 days earlier of a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by U.S. military members.

Relations between the two countries have swung dramatically since, from Libya being routinely accused of supporting international terrorism to Gaddafi winning praise for abandoning his nuclear program and the release in March of 132 political prisoners.

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