Not Quite Free

Saturday, March 29, 2008

ONCE A PARIAH because of his support for terrorism, Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi now enjoys full diplomatic relations with the United States. The turning point came in 2003, when Mr. Gaddafi renounced terrorism and agreed to dismantle his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. At the time, many attributed Mr. Gaddafi's shift to his fear of meeting the same fate as Iraq's Saddam Hussein. It also reflected his desire to lure U.S. and other Western companies to redevelop Libya's vast oil reserves.

In any case, the U.S.-Libya rapprochement has reached the point where Mr. Gaddafi himself is scheduled to appear by live video link before an invitation-only audience in a Ritz-Carlton Hotel ballroom in Washington on Monday morning. Mr. Gaddafi's speech kicks off a day-long conference hosted by the Middle East Institute, a think tank, and paid for by ExxonMobil and Mr. Gaddafi's own World Center for Research and Studies on the Green Book (his ideological manifesto). Panels will discuss such matters as Libyan policy in Africa; the State Department's top Middle East hand, David Welch, is the keynote speaker.

Fathi Eljahmi's name is not on the program. Mr. Eljahmi is a Libyan dissident. He has been in trouble with Mr. Gaddafi's regime since October 2002, when he stood up at a conference in Tripoli and demanded freedom of speech. He was imprisoned for 17 months, then released in March 2004 thanks to the intercession of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). President Bush trumpeted the release as a victory for engagement with Libya -- but Mr. Eljahmi was promptly reimprisoned for refusing to keep silent about the lack of freedom and democracy in Libya. Now seriously ill, Mr. Eljahmi has been the subject of quiet diplomacy, in which a foundation linked to Mr. Gaddafi's son has promised, but not yet delivered, freedom. The latest such assurances were given last week. Mr. Eljahmi is out of prison, but remains confined at a state-run hospital. The regime wants his promise to stop criticizing the government in exchange for his release; Mr. Eljahmi refuses.

Mr. Eljahmi is one of scores of Libyan political prisoners -- courageous Arab strugglers for democracy of the sort that President Bush has promised to help. Though U.S.-Libyan business and diplomatic ties seem to be growing apace, the end of Libya's isolation has not led to a corresponding political opening inside that country. The United States is once again being tempted with a trade-off: friendly dealings with an Arab autocracy vs. support for Arab democrats. No doubt Mr. Gaddafi feels that releasing Mr. Eljahmi might distract from his coming-out party on Monday. But Americans must keep freedom for Mr. Eljahmi and others like him at the top of the Libya agenda.

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