(New York) - The death of the political prisoner Fathi al-Jahmi means Libya has lost a leading campaigner for democracy and freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. A Human Rights Watch delegation visited al-Jahmi in late April in Tripoli, where he was detained in a hospital. Two weeks later, he was transferred to a hospital in Amman, Jordan, where he died of unknown causes on the evening of May 20, 2009.
"Fathi al-Jahmi suffered six-and-a-half years of detention, including periods he spent incommunicado, for advocating a free press, free elections and nonviolent democratic reform in his native Libya," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "He should never have been arrested in the first place."
Human Rights Watch researchers visited al-Jahmi in the Tripoli Medical Centre on April 25 and 26. The delegation noted a serious deterioration in his condition since Human Rights Watch last saw him in March 2008: he appeared frail and emaciated, could barely speak, and could not lift his arms or head. When the researchers asked him if he was free to leave, he said, "No." When they asked him if he wanted to go home, he said, "Yes."
Instead, Fathi al-Jahmi, 68, slipped into a coma on May 3 and was flown to the Amman Medical Centre two days later, accompanied by his son, and underwent surgery on May 7. His son arranged for his body to be flown back to Libya today.
"The death of Fathi al-Jahmi is a sad day in the struggle for freedom of expression in Libya," said Whitson, "His suffering first in prison and then when detained in a hospital testifies to his extraordinary bravery."
Libyan officials announced in March 2008 that al-Jahmi had been freed and could leave the hospital at any time. But it appeared when Human Rights Watch visited him both that month and three weeks ago that he remained detained in the Tripoli Medical Centre with security officers controlling access to visitors. When Human Rights Watch researchers visited him in March 2008, they noted the presence of guards outside his hospital room and that he and his family could not freely make decisions about his medical care, due to real or perceived pressure from the government. In April 2009, four men in plain clothes were in the room next door; al-Jahmi said they were usually stationed there.
Internal security forces arrested al-Jahmi, an engineer and former provincial governor, on October 19, 2002, after he criticized the government and the Libyan leader, Mu`ammar al-Qaddafi, for free elections in Libya, a free press, and the release of political prisoners. A court sentenced him to five years in prison. On March 10, 2004, an appeals court gave al-Jahmi a suspended sentence of one year and ordered his release on March 12.
That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the US-funded al-Hurra television, in which he repeated his call for Libya's democratization. He gave another interview to the station four days later, in which he called al-Qadhafi a dictator and said, "All that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him." Two weeks later, on March 26, 2004, security agents arrested al-Jahmi a second time, and held him at a special facility on the coast near Tripoli.
Physicians for Human Rights visited al-Jahmi in February 2005, and determined that he suffered from diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. The organization called for al-Jahmi's unconditional release and access to medical care. Human Rights Watch visited al-Jahmi in May 2005 at the special facility in Tripoli. He said then that he faced charges on three counts under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government; insulting al-Qadhafi; and contacting foreign authorities. The third charge, he said, resulted from conversations he had had with a US diplomat in Tripoli. In September 2006, a court consigned al-Jahmi to a psychiatric hospital, saying he was ‘mentally unfit.' During the roughly one year al-Jahmi spent at the psychiatric hospital, his health significantly declined, forcing his transfer to the Tripoli Medical Center in July 2007.