A quiet effort by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to free Libya’s most prominent political prisoner ended in tragedy Thursday when doctors pronounced Fathi al-Jahmi dead in a Jordanian hospital.
First arrested by Libyan authorities in 2002 for advocating democratic reform in his authoritarian nation, Mr. al-Jahmi, 68, was already in a coma when he was taken from his cell on May 5 and flown to Amman with security agents in tow.
The dissident’s brother, Mohammed al-Jahmi, said the release - which came too late to save Mr. al-Jahmi’s life - likely resulted at least in part from Mr. Biden’s previously unreported appeals to Libyan authorities. The former Democratic senator from Delaware had intervened previously in 2004 to get Mr. al-Jahmi released from an earlier detention.
Mohammed al-Jahmi contrasted the vice president’s efforts to free his brother with those of the Bush administration, which secured a landmark 2003 agreement that persuaded longtime Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi to relinquish a fledgling nuclear program in return for normal relations with the United States.
President Bush “promised me he would do something and he did nothing,” Mr. al-Jahmi said about his brother. “But [President] Obama, and particularly Vice President Biden, did pressure the Libyans to let my brother at the last second go to another country for medical treatment.
“Unfortunately, the Libyans were insincere and always intended to finish Fathi off, so he would not die in Libya. By the time he was sent to Jordan, it was too late: He was in a coma and on a ventilator and not breathing on his own.”
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser for Mr. Bush, disputed the assertion about his administration.
“The Bush administration raised the case of Fathi al-Jahmi literally dozens of times, at all levels, so the statement that we ‘did nothing’ is false,” Mr. Abrams said. “We got his prison conditions improved, then we got him better medical care, then we got him family visits.
“I cannot speak to what then-Senator Biden did, but obviously his efforts and all those of the U.S. government failed to get Fathi al-Jahmi released until his medical condition was too far gone. The Libyan government should have let him out long ago, and its refusal to do so no doubt contributed to his death.”
Mr. al-Jahmi suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes. His family said that he was denied adequate medical treatment when he was in jail.
He was first arrested in October 2002 after he gave a speech calling for political reform at a meeting of the General People’s Congress, which nominally is in charge of the oil-rich North African country. In fact, Col. Gadhafi and members of his family and tribe hold a monopoly on political power.
Mr. Biden, who took an interest in the case when he was the ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeded in persuading Libyan authorities to release Mr. al-Jahmi from jail on March 12, 2004.
Only two weeks later, however, Mr. al-Jahmi was arrested again after he gave interviews on Arab satellite television stations describing Col. Gadhafi as a “dictator,” calling attention to nepotism and corruption in the Libyan state security services and pinning the blame for the bombing of Pan Am 103 on Libya.
A White House aide who requested anonymity said that Mr. Biden “continued to press for [Mr. al-Jahmi’s] release, and was very sorry to learn of the passing of such a courageous advocate for democracy and human rights.”
A State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly said, “I think in previous briefings, we had welcomed his release to Jordan. We regret that his poor state of health, however, did not allow him to fully recover upon transfer. We took his case very seriously. This case has been addressed both in Tripoli at our embassy, and it also has been raised here at the department.”
The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Libya was considered a pariah and a sponsor of terrorism until it agreed to give up a fledgling nuclear program, renounce terrorism and pay compensation to victims of past attacks and their families, including billions of dollars for the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in 1988 that killed 270 people.
Libya’s human rights record remains “poor,” according to the State Department.
Earlier this month, Libyan authorities reported the suicide in prison of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a purported al Qaeda operative who provided testimony on ties between the organization and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that have since been challenged as the product of torture in an Egyptian jail in 2002.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations had raised Mr. al-Jahmi’s detention at the highest levels with the Libyan government, but the Bush administration did not link Mr. al-Jahmi’s release with improved diplomatic and economic relations when it negotiated the rapprochement with Libya.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said his organization did not favor linking the two issues, saying that as a general rule his organization believes it can be more effective in countries that have normal relations with the United States.
But Mr. Malinowski said he thought the Obama administration did more to get Mr. al-Jahmi released than the Bush administration.
“This administration made significantly more effort than the last administration to get him out,” Mr. Malinowski said. “But as is now tragically playing, it was too late. A lot of us made efforts behind the scenes. A judgment was made that it was better to do this behind the scenes. Our goal was not to make hay, but to make progress.”
David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Libya, said both Presidents Bush and Obama gave the case unprecedented diplomatic attention.
“It’s really quite extraordinary for the U.S. government … to raise the issue of Fathi al-Jahmi at a very high level as they did,” Mr. Mack said.
“Fathi was not an American citizen. If he had been representative of a whole class of persecuted Libyans, I guess you could make a case for it. Think of the number of Iranians, or Russians or Chinese who are political prisoners. Do we raise the names of these specific individuals? I guess we do when there is a close American tie-in. But boy, is it rare.”
… Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.