Libya, Gaddafi and the principles of free speech
Some time ago I was invited to speak at the annual Arab Association of Urology meeting by a good friend and colleague. I was very flattered to be asked and the opportunity to visit Libya, where the conference was being held, was irresistible. Travelling the world on the back of a medical education is to be recommended. This was before the ‘glorious leader’ had been deposed and when Libya was still very much a closed society.
It was eye opening. My hosts were delightful and hospitable to a fault. I had dinner with my friend’s family, which was an honour. I had tours of the hospitals and tourist sites (more anon) and the conference was excellent.But during my visit I met a surgeon who had been imprisoned for fourteen years because his number had been in the phone book of a suspected dissident. As an (outspoken) member of a liberal Western democracy, I instinctively thought of things like courts of appeal and due process before remembering – with a chill - that there was no such thing in Gaddafi’s Libya. During my visit, I met a surgeon who had been imprisoned for fourteen years because his number had been in the phone book of a suspected dissident
I like Libyans, having always found them to be pleasant and cultured, and I did wonder how this country became a dictatorship. Is it a case of Edmund Burke’s ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’; does it reflect the essential depravity of man; or are we simply doomed to repeat the mistakes of history and our nature over and over again?
It certainly made me wonder how I would act in such circumstances, especially after I attended a meeting where one of Gaddafi’s ministers was the guest speaker. It was surreal to have everyone around me clap enthusiastically every time Gaddafi’s name was mentioned, much like you see in televised meetings from North Korea and other totalitarian regimes.
As a guest, I politely clapped as well. I think I did this to avoid embarrassment and focus by the authorities on my hosts but reflected even then on how easily we fall into the role of acquiescent supporters.
‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, Edmund Burke
Then, one of our junior doctors, Mohammed Asha, intelligent and highly competent, was scooped off the M4 by helicopter in front of his family after one of his friends had attempted to detonate a bomb in Glasgow airport. I initially assumed, I guess like most, that he must have been implicated, although I did vaguely wonder how he had managed to be a terrorist, while working many hours as a junior doctor, studying for his fellowship and publishing research. And with a wife and young child, he didn't seem to fit the profile.
After a year in prison, he was cleared by the courts. I was later outraged at his treatment. Despite being cleared in a court of law he lost his job and became essentially unemployable. Colleagues said (and wrote) that they felt he was still guilty despite having been acquitted. To me, there was the bitter irony of those comfortably protected by the rule of law willing to ignore it, compared with the fate of the surgeon I had met in Libya.
I argued publicly and as loudly as I could that if you live in a democracy with the rule of law you have to accept that judgement and not just the bits that you like. I was proud to try and support him on the basis of my assessment of him in his work and the decision of the courts.
I also wondered how many of those stout individuals who were willing to mount a whispering campaign against him would have enjoyed being imprisoned for a year while the judicial process ground its way to fruition.
If you live in a democracy with the rule of law you have to accept that judgement and not just the bits that you like.
Back in Libya, I was approached by a pleasant and very fluent young man at Sabratha. The people who had taken me there had gone to pray in the mosque (being good Muslims) when this chap materialised out of nowhere and started trying to get me to make inflammatory comments about the regime. I had been warned that this might happen and was scrupulously neutral and polite: this was a regime that had already demonstrated to me what happened to individuals even just thought to know dissidents. But it was kind of scary and emphasised to me how the state maintains control.
Sadly, I am not sure that Libya is much better currently. History seems to repeat itself over and over again and the period of chaos following the collapse of a totalitarian regime seems embedded in that process.