A previous version of this column incorrectly noted when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Will Libya Pay a Price for the Death of Dissident Fathi Eljahmi?
Fathi Eljahmi, the most prominent democratic dissident in Libya, died last Thursday. Eljahmi had endured seven years in unspeakable conditions in the Libyan prison system. His crime? He spoke out, unflinchingly, for freedom of speech and democratic reforms. Two days before his death, with Eljahmi already in a coma, the Libyans sent him to Jordan. The U.S. State Department lauded his "release" as a welcome development.
It would be wrong to say that the free world was indifferent to Eljahmi's fate. His brother Mohamed, an American citizen, spent years calling attention to the case. Mohamed even succeeded in getting then-Sen. Joseph Biden to make a direct plea for the dissident's freedom to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Amazingly, Eljahmi was released. Three weeks later, however, when it became clear that he would continue to speak his mind, he was re-arrested -- along with his wife and eldest son.
At a 2007 conference of democratic dissidents in Prague, I saw how moved President George W. Bush was by hearing Eljahmi's brother tell his story. Bush promised to press the case with the Libyan government. Despite American efforts, though, Eljahmi remained in prison.
Why? Because dictatorial regimes are well practiced at telling the difference between real pressure and lip service.
In 1986, the Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in the infamous Chistopol prison after a long and futile hunger strike for improved conditions. Three years earlier, I had gone on a similar hunger strike in the same prison and been subjected to the same tortuous conditions by KGB thugs. But the authorities eventually gave in to my demands.
Why? Because my nine years of imprisonment were accompanied by a relentless worldwide campaign and steady, unambiguous pressure on the communist regime by leaders of the free world. The regime knew that it would pay a heavy price if I were to die. With Marchenko, it was confident that the world did not care enough to do much more than mount a formal protest.
The free world has many reasons to approach dictatorial regimes with kid gloves. Sometimes we want their cooperation in addressing regional problems, sometimes we worry about disrupting the oil markets, sometimes we are anxious about global stability. Regarding Libya, from which the West has managed to extract a promise not to develop nuclear weapons and not to support terrorist organizations, there is concern about risking those things that have been gained.
As a result, and with the West's blessing, Libya has succeeded in becoming a global spokesman for brutal dictatorships like its own. We have stood by as Libya was elected to chair the U.N. Human Rights Commission and as it became a key organizer of the Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva. In a few months, a Libyan will take up the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. In giving the Libyans a free ride on human rights, the free world has handed them the tools they need to lead the public-diplomacy campaign of the world of tyranny.
Of course it is important to engage peoples around the world in constructive dialogue. But a dialogue with a country's people is not the same as a dialogue with their regime. The West has a powerful message of freedom, one that can give people in places such as Libya hope for a better future.
And how can we tell if the message is hitting its target, going over the heads of the dictators and reaching the people they rule?
The answer can be found in the fate of imprisoned dissidents such as Fathi Eljahmi. This is the litmus test. When such dissidents enjoy overwhelming public support from the free world, when international pressure results in their release from custody or when their deaths spark international outrage and sanctions, a powerful signal is sent to others suffering under the regime that they are not alone, that the world outside stands strong in the cause of their freedom. But when dissidents are left to die in prison with no major international reaction, the message that is sent is the message of the oppressors: There is no hope.
In Marchenko's case, the KGB miscalculated. His death sparked worldwide protests, contributing decisively to Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to release political prisoners on a large scale in 1987 -- just four years before the Soviet Union's collapse.
Today, the ball is in the court of the free world. Will its leaders make Libya pay a heavy price, making clear to Libyans and other oppressed peoples that brutality will not be tolerated and that freedom can one day be theirs? Or will the message match that of the Libyan regime to its people: that in their country, freedom has no future.
The coming days will tell us how the free world has chosen.
A human rights activist, Natan Sharansky spent nine years in the Soviet gulag. He is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.