On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Great Revolution, last week’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al Megrahi crowns Gaddafi’s rehabilitation in the international community.
Once shunned as a dangerous pariah, Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi is now regarded as a sort of eccentric partner who can offer lucrative contracts to Western energy and military companies.
Back in the 1980s – a time when Saddam Hussein was still regarded as a useful friend in the war against Iran – he was the United States’ number one enemy. Now, not only has Gaddafi outlived the Iraqi dictator but Western leaders now seem to be in open competition with each other to secure Libyan contracts.
Megrahi’s release comes just in time for Gaddafi to crown the legitimisation of his regime, as September will also see celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘Bloodless Coup’ that overthrew King Idris in 1969. The Libyan leader will also chair an African Union summit and address the UN general assembly next month.
Just a few days after personally welcoming Megrahi as a national hero, Gaddafi will be hosting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of the former renegade’s main international sponsors.
Berlusconi has promised to provide US$200 million a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya, in a secret agreement in whose aftermath Italy started to forcibly repatriate migrants back to Libya.
Berlusconi’s visit to Libya is expected to seal his new friendship with Italy’s right wing government despite the international embarrassment caused by Megrahi’s hero welcome. But the new axis between Berlusconi and Gaddafi has prompted criticism from human rights groups.
In June, Amnesty International expressed concern about Libya’s alleged collusion with Italy in the mistreatment of economic migrants and asylum-seekers.
“Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar al-Gaddafi are building their friendship agreement at the expense of people from other countries whom both regard as expendable,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “It looks less like friendship and more like a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations.”
Ironically, while Libya was celebrating the release of Megrahi, a boat carrying five Eritrean survivors managed to reach the Italian coast after a 20-day ordeal in which 73 migrants lost their lives. Eight bodies were sited by Frontex patrols in Libyan territorial waters.
Libya is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention, and has no asylum system. It has a dismal record of abuse and mistreatment of migrants caught trying to flee the country by boat, and cannot seriously be regarded as a partner in any scheme that claims to protect refugees.
Amnesty International’s 2008 report on human rights in Libya is a brisk reminder of what kind of leader Western powers are engaging with. Independent political expression and group activity remains banned and those who peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association may face the death penalty.
Prisoner of conscience Fathi el-Jahmi continues to be held at the Tripoli Medical Centre. Arrested in March 2004, after he called for political reform and criticized the Libyan leader in international media interviews, he was declared mentally unfit when taken before a court in September 2006. In March 2008 he was examined by an independent medical doctor on behalf of the US-based NGO Physicians for Human Rights, who assessed him as showing no signs of mental incapacity but found him to be in poor health and in need of surgery.
Idriss Boufayed and 11 others were tried before the State Security Court, a court created in August 2007 to try individuals accused of unauthorized political activity and offences against state security and whose proceedings do not conform to international fair trial standards. Idriss Boufayed and 10 others were sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years after being convicted on vaguely worded charges, including “attempting to overthrow the political system”, “spreading false rumours about the Libyan regime” and “communication with enemy powers”.
According to AI, the authorities failed to address the long-standing pattern of impunity for perpetrators of gross human rights violations. No public information was made available about the investigation into events in 1996 at Tripoli’s Abu Salim Prison in which hundreds of prisoners were allegedly killed.
The authorities took no steps to address the legacy of gross human rights violations committed in earlier years, notably the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including the enforced disappearance of hundreds of critics and opponents of the government. Many are feared to have died or been killed in custody.
There were also persistent reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detained migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers; the latter were not afforded protection, as required by international refugee law. On 15 January 2008, the authorities announced their intention to deport all “illegal migrants”, and subsequently carried out mass expulsions of Ghanaians, Malians, Nigerians and nationals of other countries. At least 700 Eritrean men, women and children were detained and were at risk of forcible return despite fears that they would be subjected to serious human rights abuses in Eritrea.
Despite his abysmal human rights record and his lack of remorse for past misdeeds, Gaddafi has surely gone a long way from the 1980s when he was locked in confrontation with the West, accused of supplying weaponry to the IRA, of bombing a Berlin discotheque packed with American servicemen, and of supporting terrorism.
In 1986 the Reagan administration, which dubbed him “Mad Dog Gaddafi”, launched air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in an attempt to kill him. The turning point in relations with the West came in 2003 when Gaddafi scrapped his presumed weapons programme, opened Libya’s facilities to inspection, and signalled a new era of collaboration with the west. In return, UN sanctions were lifted, Britain and other EU countries dispatched trade missions, focusing in particular on Libya’s under-developed oil industry, and in 2004, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair offered him “the hand of friendship”.
Although Britian denies any commercial interests in Megrahi’s release, insisting that this was a decision of the Scottish government, business has played an important part in the rapprochement with Libya.
BP has invested roughly $1bn in oil and gas exploration. In the energy field Britain has to compete with countries like France which have promised to help Libya develop nuclear energy.
And perversely the international pariah of the cold war days is now being supplied missiles and air defense systems by Britain.