Libyan Human Rights Activist Dies

Fathi Eljahmi was known as Libya's most prominent dissident for three decades. He died last week after years in and out of prison — and after years of international criticism about his treatment. His brother, Mohamed Eljahmi, talks about Fathi's life and struggles.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Fathi Eljahmi was known as Libya's most prominent dissident for three decades. He died last week after years in and out of prison and after years of international criticism about his treatment.

In 2005, Physicians for Human Rights said he was receiving inadequate care for heart disease and diabetes. And a year later, the American government normalized relations with Libya, despite vowing to press the country's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, to improve his treatment.

Fathi Eljahmi died May 21st in Amman, Jordan. He'd been flown there in a coma from a Libyan jail. His brother, Mohamed, is a software engineer in the Boston area, and he's with us now. And first of all, we want to say that we're very, very sorry to learn of the death of your brother.

Mr. MOHAMED ELJAHMI: Well, it is a big loss. It's going to take a while to get over this loss of a big brother, a great advocate of human rights who celebrated his humanity. He was not an ideologically bound, and he died for principles so others can have a better life.

LYDEN: Your brother Fathi was once a provincial governor in Libya, and he believed in improving the infrastructure - he's known as a technocrat - but he also believed in law and order. And two decades later, he was jailed after a speech calling for democracy and free speech. Could you give us a short summary of his beliefs?

Mr. ELJAHMI: Sure. In his letters to Gadhafi and in his interviews, he called for the creation of a civil society and a constitution, a dialogue, a roundtable dialogue, general amnesty for all political prisoners, respect for the rule of law, and he reminded the Libyans that they live in a small world.

LYDEN: When was the last time you saw your brother Fathi?

Mr. ELJAHMI: I saw him in Boston in 1981. He came to visit me. I owe everything, coming to the U.S., to my oldest brother.

LYDEN: Because he sent you here?

Mr. ELJAHMI: He sent me here. He spent money on me even though the Libyan regime confiscated his business and nationalized his properties. Fathi believed in education. He was very smart. He was principled. He was disciplined. He loved his family. Fathi in private was the same as he is in public. There are so many stories that they tell me about him.

LYDEN: Can you pick one?

Mr. ELJAHMI: Well, you know, helping destitute relatives and him being in a very bad situation at Tripoli Medical Center, on his deathbed, and he still asks about how I am...

LYDEN: I'm sorry.

Mr. ELJAHMI: ...how are my children. This is the nurturing part about Fathi that I grew to appreciate. A very complex man with simple needs, an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. He's not a demigod.

LYDEN: Mohamed Eljahmi, your brother's case got a lot of attention from the United States government over the years. President Bush mentioned him in a speech; Joe Biden, then a senator, now vice president, helped him get out of prison for that brief time in 2004; but in the end, I understand that you were frustrated with the State Department, and quite recently.

Mr. ELJAHMI: Well, yes. I mean, the bureaucracy within the State Department, the type of bureaucracy does not take risks, views Fathi as a risk situation, risk their relations with Gadhafi, et cetera. So, they failed to push strongly for Fathi. In addition, there - for two years Fathi was isolated, he was deprived from medications. We didn't hear anything from him.

LYDEN: What do you think the U.S. should do at this point, vis-a-vis its relations with Libya?

Mr. ELJAHMI: Well, I hope Libya is not rewarded, and I think killing Fathi is a slap in the face. I would hope that President Obama, when he goes to Egypt, would cite Fathi in his speech as a way to say, look at what he stood for, similar to Obama. Fathi always reached out, looked for dialogue, celebrated his Islamic heritage and Islamic identity, as well as his Arabic identity, but also opened up to say that we are a part of the world. The world is a small place. We're part of it. You know, this message is consistent with what President Obama is trying to do.

LYDEN: Mohamed Eljahmi, joining us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. And again, we offer our condolences.

Mr. ELJAHMI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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