There is a joke about Libya which goes something like this: why does Libya has a population of both six million and four million? The answer is that one million are abroad and the other million are in prison.
It’s not a funny joke, but it’s a revealing one. As the country prepares to celebrate 40 years of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, and despite various of our politicians desperately trying to tell us how much Libya has changed and the numerous Sunday supplement articles extolling the virtues of Libya as a holiday destination, Libya remains one of the most intolerant, totalitarian and repressive regimes in the world. Libyan citizens regularly ‘disappear’ — arrested by the authorities. Their loved ones are often left in the dark.
Since 2003 Libya has been extolled by Britain as an example of a reformed state. Tony Blair was quick to take the credit, rushing over to Gaddafi and saying, ‘People should not forget the past, they should move beyond it.’
On hearing that, I felt physically sick. With that one sound-bite, Libyans inside the country and those who like me were living abroad knew that the political will to push for justice in the many unresolved cases was lost.
Cases such as the murder of my father, Ali Abuzeid, whose body I found in his west London shop on 26 November 1995. He had been stabbed to death. A key member of the leading Libyan opposition group in the 1980s, my father had put all his efforts into ridding his homeland of its dictator. My childhood years were spent worrying about him every time he travelled, learning to be careful around other Arabs. I once had to leave Tunisia accompanied by secret police when they found out that a hit squad had been sent to assassinate him after a failed attempt to overthrow the Libyan regime.
Back in London, I remember hearing his name mentioned in a speech by Gaddafi, who had called for him and others to be hunted down. At one point there was a bounty of millions on his head.
After years in exile and the deaths of many of his friends inside Libya who had been rounded up and executed, my father decided to retire from opposition politics. Revolution, he now believed, could only come from within, instead of being led by those in exile. However, from his shop in a neighbourhood populated with Arabs, he remained vocal about his opinions and politics and then, after years of being careful and keeping under the radar, he became an easy target.
So when I answered a call early one Sunday morning in November 1995 from one of his staff, who said the door to the shop was open but the lights were off, my heart began to pound with that familiar childhood fear for his safety. I told myself that maybe he had just fallen down some steps or that he had forgetfully left the door open.
As I went in and switched the lights on I saw, at the back of the shop, the image that I try to wipe out of my memory: my beloved father covered in blood, his chest stabbed with a knife and his face viciously marked after death — a final spiteful act by his killers. At that moment the world froze. I don’t know how, but I called the police and stopped my 14-year-old brother from entering the shop.
When I thought we were safe, when my father was no longer a threat, they had taken their revenge. The regime has a long memory, and its agents had not ‘moved on’ but had caught up and executed one of the ‘stray dogs’ they had been hunting. We discovered later that he had been receiving threats for months, and in hindsight I realised that during that time my father had seemed distracted and was more sombre than usual.
I was 23, still young and naive enough to think that the murder of my father, a British citizen, would be properly investigated. However, I soon got a speedy reality check.
A police press conference where I would appeal for witnesses was cancelled on the morning it was due to happen. Police officers told me off the record that they were not being allowed to do their job properly. They repeatedly told me that they knew that his murder had been political but that they were unable to say so publicly. They could not access the Libyans they wanted to question nor say who they believed to be responsible.
Two weeks after my father’s murder, a Libyan diplomat, Khalifa Bazelya, was expelled from Britain for the intimidation and surveillance of Libyan dissidents living in the UK. Intelligence documents which later came to light revealed that MI5 and MI6 suspected he was responsible for violence in the UK, yet they chose to expel him before anyone had an opportunity to question him about my father’s death. No one has given an adequate explanation for why they decided to deport him so quickly and why they didn’t question him about the murder. I began to realise there were higher agendas being served.
But my father’s murder is only one of a long list of crimes that have been committed by the Libyan regime and have gone unpunished and unresolved.
While Libyan officials have this week expressed pride at the fact that al-Megrahi’s release has been on the table at every discussion and meeting with UK politicians — why is there not a similar urgency among British officials to push for justice for my father or in the even more clear-cut case of WPC Yvonne Fletcher?
WPC Fletcher was gunned down outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984 with a machine-gun wielded by a Libyan official inside the embassy. The police have since been to Libya and even think they know who it was who shot her, but they are unable to complete their investigations. I would have hoped that the British government would have pushed for this at the very least, before embracing Libya back into the fold. But Yvonne Fletcher’s mother, Queenie, will probably now never see her killer brought to justice.
Hisham Matar, the booker-nominated writer, this week wrote movingly about his father, Jaballa Matar, who was whisked 20 years ago from the streets of Cairo to a Libyan jail. He has not heard news of his father for 14 years, and to this day he and his family do not know if he is alive or dead, greeting every occasional release from a Libyan jail with hope of news one way or the other.
‘My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete,’ Matar wrote. I cannot imagine his family’s suffering and pain each time our politicians make cynical, pragmatic statements about change in Libya.
Not one western country in the rush to welcome Libya back on to the international stage has pushed for an investigation into the countless numbers that have been ‘disappeared’ by the regime. Human Rights Watch last year said in its report ‘Libya Rights at Risk’ that: ‘To date, international engagement with the oil-rich country has focused on counter-terrorism and business ties, and inadequately addressed the lack of democratic reform and protection of human rights.’
That is putting it mildly. Things of course have changed. The Libyan government has come to understand the importance of PR and its diplomats have worked hard to convince the west that theirs is a country to be counted on to help in the fight against terror; that they have ‘moved beyond’ the years of blowing up planes, financing armed movements and the murder and assassination of its enemies abroad.
But it’s not as if the new Libya has changed much. It still acts to suppress any public criticism of the regime. Fathi El Jahmi, Libya’s most prominent dissident, called for free speech and political reforms. After years in state custody he fell into a coma and was evacuated to a Jordanian hospital, where he died earlier this year.
As Libya is now no long
er a pariah state, it’s difficult for its citizens to persuade the west that it is still brutal. Mohammed Adel Abu Ali was returned to Libya in 2008 when his asylum claim in Sweden was rejected. he was promptly arrested and died in prison the very same month. The authorities said he’d ‘committed suicide’. Human rights groups disagree.
In June 1996 there was a mass killing of over 1,000 political prisoners in the notorious Abu Salim prison. This has never been criticised or investigated. Details only began to emerge in 2001 and 2002, when some families were informed of the death of their imprisoned relatives.
The list of crimes goes on. The fact is that I don’t expect much from the Libyan authorities — they have always been clear about their agenda and make no apologies for their regime. However I do expect and demand more from our democratically elected British politicians, who owe their citizens a measure of truth and justice rather than more doses of spin and political posturing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 29, 2009