Two Libyan Prisoners, Two Paradoxical Fates

The recent humanitarian release of Libyan citizen Abdalbaset al-Megrahi from prison in Greenock, Scotland, because of his poor health, and his subsequent “hero’s welcome” in Libya is strikingly incongruous when compared with the tragic fate of Fathi al-Jahmi, a Libyan prisoner who also suffered from poor health, including coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, and diabetes.

Libyan authorities held Mr. al-Jahmi prisoner in Tripoli on two occasions for a total of six and a half years. His “crime”? The peaceful exercise of his fundamental rights of freedom of expression and association. He advocated for democratic reforms and free elections, as have many other Libyan citizens whose outspoken opinions have led to their imprisonment. Additionally, Mr. al-Jahmi had the audacity to directly criticize the Libyan government and its leader of 40 years, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Quaddafi.

Mr. al-Jahmi’s second arrest took place in March 2004. In February 2005, a medical doctor representing Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) visited him in a special detention facility and reported that he suffered from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. PHR “called for al-Jahmi’s unconditional release and access to medical care.”

However, following a secret trial in May 2006 that failed to meet fundamental fair-trial standards, the court ruled that Mr. al-Jahmi was mentally unfit to stand trial. Confinement in a psychiatric hospital, for an entire year, followed this ruling. He was denied both medical care and family visits. In mid-2007, after a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, the Libyan authorities granted Mr. al-Jahmi a transfer to Tripoli Medical Center and later claimed he was a free man.

PHR and Human Rights Watch representatives, including PHR advisor Dr. Scott Allen, visited Mr. al-Jahmi at the Tripoli Medical Center in mid-March 2008 — a repeat visit facilitated by the Quaddafi Foundation, which is headed by Col. Quaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. They found that Mr. al-Jahmi’s health had improved with better medical care and that he was not “mentally disturbed.” However, his health was still substantially worse than at the time of his arrest, and he remained very ill, so much so that the PHR doctor recommended immediate invasive testing and suggested possible angioplasty or bypass surgery. Because Mr. al-Jahmi did not trust the Libyan authorities, the PHR doctor said that it could prove necessary to perform such follow-up procedures abroad.

When the two rights organizations’ representatives asked Mr. al-Jahmi if he was free to leave the medical center, he said no. When they asked him if he wanted to go home, he said yes. They also reported that security officers controlled access to visitors and that neither Mr. al-Jahmi nor his family could “freely make decisions about his medical care, due to real or perceived pressure from the government.”

Mr. al-Jahmi’s family subsequently reported that he was denied regular nursing care and critical medical treatment. Guards flanked his door and confined him to his room, which they locked from the outside. During the family’s daily visits, limited to two hours, his wife and children brought him food and did what they could to make him comfortable. But they also watched his health steadily deteriorate, and by early 2009, they said he was no longer able to move, eat, or drink without assistance and could speak only with great difficulty. In early April 2009, Mr. al-Jahmi’s family requested his transfer to the intensive care unit, but this request was not granted until, on May 3, he lapsed into coma.

The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, of which I am executive director, and many other concerned groups, sent repeated and urgent appeals for Mr. al-Jahmi’s release on humanitarian grounds for health reasons to Col. Quaddafi and Libyan government authorities. We did not receive a single direct reply to our pleas. Only through an international organization, acting as an intermediary in a private process between our group of national academies and the Libyan government, did we learn that the Libyan authorities claimed, contrary to information we deemed reliable, that Mr. al-Jahmi was a free man, in the hospital of his own choice, and receiving appropriate medical treatment.

Subsequently, we learned from Mr. al-Jahmi’s brother that on May 5 of this year the apparently frantic Libyan authorities had Mr. al-Jahmi flown to the Arab Medical Center in Jordan, presumably to avoid the accusations and humiliation that would follow if they allowed him to die in a Libyan prison, as rights organizations and others had feared they would do. Mr. al-Jahmi was taken out of the country, still in a coma, and in the company of security guards who did not take along any of his essential medical records. Only his son was permitted to accompany him. Mr. al-Jahmi reportedly never regained consciousness. He was 68 years old and an internationally recognized democracy advocate and prisoner of conscience when he died on May 20, far away from his home and family, with Libyan security guards looking on.

The Libyan authorities callously denied Mr. al-Jahmi the medical treatment he required during much of his imprisonment and the last months of his life. Then, when clearly on his death bed, in an apparent attempt to avoid embarrassment, they took him away from his home and family to die in Jordan. Thus, it was a cruel and deeply offensive irony when, just four months later, another seriously ill internationally known Libyan prisoner was flown by Libyan authorities, in the company of Col. Quaddafi’s son, to a “hero’s welcome” in Tripoli. That man was Abdalbaset al-Megrahi, a convicted mass murderer, known to the world as the Lockerbie bomber.

The authorities in Edinburgh, Scotland, said they had released Mr. al-Megrahi because he was dying of prostate cancer and should be permitted to spend what time he had left at home, in the company of his family. Col. Quaddafi’s son reportedly said he was deeply grateful “to the Scottish government for taking this brave decision [Megrahi’s release] and for taking into account the special humanitarian circumstances.”

If the Libyan authorities had shown any semblance of courage or understanding or compassion toward Mr. al-Jahmi, their own citizen and a truly courageous and selfless human being, and had responded to the many repeated and urgent appeals from around the world for his humanitarian release, surely this brave and clearly innocent man would be alive today. Instead, the Lockerbie bomber is now at home among his family and friends, benefiting from the kind of medical care that could have saved Mr. al-Jahmi — a man who never got the hero’s welcome he so deserved.

Carol Corillon is Executive Director of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, an organization that she helped create in 1993. The primary objective of the Network is to use the influence and prestige of its member academies to actively defend the rights of professional colleagues — scientists, medical professionals, engineers, and scholars — who are unjustly imprisoned or persecuted for nonviolently expressing their opinions.

This blog post was endorsed by the Executive Committee of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies.