Forgotten In Libya's Dungeons

Today, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan Col. Moammar Gaddafi and the regime's point man in dealing with the United States, is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department. The visit by Saif, who also heads the Gaddafi Foundation, will be the first trip to Washington by a member of Moammar Gaddafi's immediate family. Sadly, it comes as Libyan democratic dissidents suffer in the dungeons of his father, their plight ignored by the State Department.

After nearly five years of engagement with the United States, Gaddafi rules supreme in Libya and enjoys renewed legitimacy at home and abroad. The United States, which in 2006 removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, has failed to push consistently for meaningful reform. Libya has no domestic opposition worthy of the name. There are no domestic constraints to keep Gaddafi from reverting to his old ways. Dissidents continue to disappear, and the death squads organized by Gaddafi's Revolutionary Committees remain a terrorizing force within Libyan society.

The European-educated Saif is unrepentant about the regime's reliance on terrorist tactics. Two years ago, Saif admitted, "We used terrorism as tactics, for bargaining." In a CNN interview on Sept. 11, he said, "We tried to terrorize our enemies, yes . . . Now, the Americans are our friends."

One of Gaddafi's victims who continues to suffer is my older brother, Fathi Eljahmi. Fathi, 67, is a prisoner of conscience and probably Libya's most prominent democracy activist. He has diabetes, hypertension and a heart ailment. He was first detained in October 2002 because he publicly called for national reconciliation, a free press, free enterprise and government accountability. He was released on March 12, 2004, after Sen. Joseph Biden interceded on his behalf. But just two weeks later, on March 26, Fathi was abducted by Libya's Internal Security Agency because he continued to call for reform. He is being held in isolation, under inhumane conditions, in a hospital in Tripoli. Two guards block entry to his small room 24 hours a day. Visits are rare and subject to approval by the regime. Fathi's family also suffers. Two of his three sons cannot leave the country, and all our relatives endure constant surveillance.

During a rare family visit in September, Fathi asked why officials from the U.S. Embassy had stopped visiting him, even though I have repeatedly told the State Department's Near East Bureau that embassy officials' visits help ensure humane detention. We had no answer for him.

The Libyan regime's continued intolerance of dissent was illustrated in July when an envoy of Saif's intimated that Fathi would be killed after President Bush left office. This person demanded that the Eljahmi tribe "disavow and disown Fathi Eljahmi or risk collective punishment." In 1997, Libya enacted an "Honor Law" that gives the state the right to punish a family, tribe, town, city or even a province for individual wrongdoing. In January, Saleh Abdel Salam, the head of human rights at the Gaddafi Foundation, threatened our family. "If Fathi is released and speaks, we will cut off his head and ship it in a box to the Americans," he told us, "and if he leaves the country, you will stay here and be punished if he speaks." We believe it is only because of Sen. Biden's continued interest and intervention that Fathi remains alive.

In early September, Secretary Rice paid a historic visit to Tripoli. Just days before she arrived, the regime ordered Revolutionary Committees to march with machine guns in front of Fathi's house in Benghazi. The chanting mob blocked the street for nearly an hour. No one in Libya can carry machine guns openly without explicit approval from Gaddafi. The message was chilling to the defenseless women inside the house.

In July, Sen. Biden aptly stated: "Gaddafi continues to rule by personal fiat. He may have had a change of mind about Libya's policies, but I doubt that it has been matched by a change of heart . . . It is critical that the Bush administration pursue a broader engagement with the Libyan people and civil society." Yet under the Bush administration, the State Department continues to engage Arab dictators at the expense of dissidents who support transitions to peaceful, modern societies. Our family hopes that our beloved brother and father survives -- and that President-elect Barack Obama brings much-needed change to U.S. policy toward Libya.

Mohamed Eljahmi, a Libyan American activist who lives in Massachusetts.