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The Bomber and the Dissident by Bill Frelick, The Daily Beast

The Bomber and the Dissident by Bill Frelick, The Daily Beast

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Published by: Bill Frelick on Apr 15, 2012
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The Bomber and the Dissident
One got a glorious homecoming. The other was left to rot.Bill Frelick on the paradoxes of justice, Libya-style
 — 
and theperils of pretending Gaddafi has changed his stripes.
by Bill Frelick |September 3, 2009 9:07 PM EDT
The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, cited “compassion” as the reason for releasing
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi after he served only eight years of a minimum 27-year sentence forthe murder of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Megrahi maymake a cameo appearance as Libya celebrates at the 40th anniversary of Col. Muammar
Gaddafi’s coup this we
ek 
 — 
a festive event featuring military parades and fireworks. The imageof the returning Megrahi kissing Gaddafi's hand stands in marked contrast to my memory of another terminally ill Libyan who was denied such a homecoming.Abdel Nasser Al-Rabbasi is serving a 15-year sentence in Abu Salim prison for writing a novel
about economic corruption and human rights in Libya. “I don’t know why I was imprisoned,” hetold me. “I didn’t carry a gun. I only carried a pen.”
 In April, I sat with two of my Human Rights Watch colleagues at the bedside of a terribly frailFathi Al-
Jahmi, Libya’s most famous political dissident, in an isolated, guarded room in a Tripoli
hospital. We had no doubt that we were seeing a man on his deathbed. Al-Jahmi did not have thestrength to lift his hand or to speak beyond a faint whisper. His body was riddled with bedsores,his tongue was parched dry as sand
 — 
but his eyes still darted in fear at the sight of his minders.Megrahi was convicted of mass murder. Al-
Jahmi’s only “crime” was his n
onviolent criticism of Gaddafi. During much of his 6 1/2 years in prison, Al-Jahmi was held in solitary confinementand denied medical care. As his body slowly, torturously wasted away, Human Rights Watch,among others, pleaded for his release
 — 
to no avail.The dying Al-Jahmi could barely squeeze my hand, but he did manage to communicate to us hisdesire to return to his family home in Benghazi. When it was clear he had only weeks, if notdays, to live, his comatose body was loaded on a plane to Jordan. He died 17 days later.
 
Of course, the Libyan authorities’ evident lack of compassion for Al
-Jahmi should have nobearing on Megrahi. Acts of mercy should not be dependent on a quid pro quo, notwithstandingrecent reports suggesting there may have been links be
tween Megrahi’s release and the award of 
British oil contracts in Libya
 — 
allegations the Brits vigorously deny.
But Libya’s treatment of Al
-Jahmi does demonstrate that there may indeed be a wide gulf 
 between Libya’s behavior and the image of the country tha
t Western governments have beenworking to burnish as they seek commercial and political ties with Tripoli. These ties are comingtogether quickly. The European Commission is negotiating a framework agreement for futureEU-Libyan cooperation. Its vice president, Jacques Barrot, is hoping to sweeten the deal with a
visit to Tripoli with €80 million in hand for projects aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and
asylum seekers through Libya to Europe.Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy was in Libya this week not only to celebrate the 40th
anniversary of Gaddafi’s rule but also the one
-
year anniversary of Italy’s bilateral "Friendship
Treaty" with the country. He has pledged to spend $200 million per year in Libya for the next 25years. When Italy began joint naval patrols with Libya in May to return African boat migrantsand asylum seekers, it wanted Libya to appear as a legitimate partner that would treat themproperly. The nagging truth, however, is that Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention
and has no asylum law or procedure. Gaddafi’s regime also has a well
-established record of treating migrants brutally and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.Similarly, when the United States enlisted Libya
 — 
previously on its list as a state sponsor of terrorism
 — 
as a partner in its global war on terror, did it stop to consider how Libya might treat
the terror suspects “rendered” there? Perhaps they couldn’t be treated any worse than at the
hands of the CIA in black sites in Afghanistan, but certainly U.S. responsibility for their fate
doesn’t end simply by putting them on planes in the dead of night. One of the terrorist suspects
that the CIA rendered to Libya, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, was found dead in his cell in May, hisdeath ruled a suicide, days after I met him in Abu Salim prison. (The U.S. government pressedfor an investigation; officials have to my knowledge not commented on whether they weresatisfied with the Libyan finding that he died by his own hand.)There have been some positive signs of change in Libya, to be sure. The government is revisingits penal code, and there is some expanded space for free expression. But Libya continues to holdpolitical prisoners, even after their sentences end. And, as they did with Fathi Al-Jahmi, theLibyan authorities still imprison people for nonviolently expressing their beliefs. I met anothersuch man in Abu Salim prison, Abdel Nasser Al-Rabbasi, who is serving a 15-year sentence forwriting a novel about economic corruption and human right
s in Libya. “I don’t know why I wasimprisoned," he told me. "I didn’t carry a gun. I only carried a pen.”
 As they line up to do business with Libya, Western governments call into question their owncompassion when they show no regard for the African migrants summarily returned to Libya, thebound-and-gagged terror suspects rendered there, and those who languish in Libyan prisons forsaying the wrong thing.

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