By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to raise the case of a gravely ill Libyan political prisoner championed by Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) when she travels to Tripoli this week, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
Fathi al-Jahmi, 67, has been jailed or held in a hospital since 2002 -- except for a brief interlude in 2004 engineered by Biden -- for advocating freedom of speech and democracy in a country tightly controlled by its leader, Moammar Gaddafi, since 1969. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights have sent Rice letters in the past week urging her to raise Jahmi's case and other human rights issues when she meets with Gaddafi.
"We have followed this case," said Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch. "We have been discussing it for some time with the Libyan government. We expect it to be discussed [by Rice] in forthcoming meetings in Tripoli."
Jahmi's brother Mohamed lives in Boston and in a recent interview complained bitterly about Rice's failure to publicly mention his brother' plight, which he said has included harassment, threats against his wife and children and a persistent claim that his brother "will be liquidated at the end of Bush's regime."
Jahmi, according to his brother, is being held in the Tripoli Medical Center in a solitary room monitored by video and audio devices and infested with cockroaches. He has no access to newspapers and television and limited visiting rights, Mohamed said. He suffers from hypertension and advanced-stage diabetes, and has a heart condition, though his health has improved since he began getting medication earlier this year. His wife recently returned home to Benghazi, 400 miles from Tripoli, after spending a month waiting in vain to see her husband.
"The Bush administration doesn't seem to care," Mohamed al-Jahmi said. "The more Secretary Rice and the Bush administration ignores this issue, the more my family will suffer. Why is there this gap between rhetoric and reality on the issue of democracy?"
U.S. officials argue that in some cases, it is better to raise such issues "quietly and privately," particularly when a nascent relationship is being built after decades of acrimony. Rice will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with Gaddafi and the first secretary of state to visit Libya in 55 years.
When Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalqam came to Washington in January to meet with Rice and other officials, he bragged afterward to al-Jazeera television that U.S. officials were on the "defensive" about human rights. "Who can talk about human rights while people are dying daily in Iraq?" he asked. "Are there human rights under occupation?"
Fathi al-Jahmi, a civil engineer, had been a governor of an oil-rich province and chairman of the national planning commission in the 1970s but was jailed in 2002 after he delivered a speech in Tripoli calling for democracy, a free press and the release of political prisoners.
In 2004, Biden met with Gaddafi and pressed for Jahmi's freedom. Nine days later, on March 12, he was released with a suspended one-year sentence. That day, President Bush publicly lauded Gaddafi's action as "an encouraging step toward reform in Libya." He added: "You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things."
Two weeks later, Jahmi was back in prison. He had met with a U.S. diplomat at a hotel to express his gratitude for American help in securing his release, and two U.S. diplomats later visited his house. As a result, he was charged with having "exchanged information with employees of a foreign state that is harmful to the country" and "scheming with foreigners during times of peace." Both charges can result in the death penalty.
Last month, the United States and Libya reached an agreement settling outstanding claims tied to Libya-related terrorism from the 1980s. The deal includes Libya paying more than $1 billion to a U.S.-administered fund for families of victims. Though the money has not been delivered, the action cleared the way for Rice's trip.
Days before the agreement was announced -- and just before he was named as running mate for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- Biden spoke on the Senate floor and said he was "disappointed that this comprehensive claims settlement agreement is not accompanied by a comprehensive plan to engage Libyan society. . . . Mr. al-Jahmi's continuing captivity is a reminder that basic fundamental freedoms such a rule of law and freedom of speech do not exist inside Libya."