Writer questioned Gadhafi’s future - and landed in jail

Nation still holds tight to restricting criticism as it tries to go forward

Fellows Fall 2005

By David Michaels

June 03, 2009

TOBRUK, Libya – Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri's greatest risk was letting the world know his name.

Even as Libya reforms its judicial system and opens its economy to foreign investment, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime tightly restricts criticism of its government. Mr. al-Mansuri, a writer and bookseller, stretched the limits of that stricture for two years, publishing articles under his own name on a London-based Web site.

This fall, his luck gave out. Mr. al-Mansuri is now in a Libyan prison, officially sentenced for possession of a gun. While admitting he owned a gun, Mr. al-Mansuri's family and supporters say it was an antique that did not work and argue that he is the latest victim of Libya's attempt to silence a free-thinking critic.

"Ten years ago, they would have made him a political prisoner," said Ali Abd al-Wanis al-Mansuri, his brother. "They might torture him, but at least we'd know he's a political prisoner. Now they put you in prison for something you did not do."

As Libya tries to burnish its image, its leaders have released some political prisoners. Its Supreme Court recently ordered a new trial for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of intentionally infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. The decision was widely hailed as a move that allowed Libya to avoid a confrontation with Western governments it has been trying to court.

But Libya remains a country where critics are intimidated by laws that make it a crime to call for changes to the state's political, social or economic makeup.

In 2004, Fathi el-Jahmi, an engineer, was arrested – for the second time – for calling Col. Gadhafi a war criminal and a terrorist on Arabic satellite television. President Bush had spoken up for Mr. el-Jahmi on a previous occasion, but Mr. el-Jahmi is still being detained, and has not been tried, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Libya also has yet to release 83 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that advocates a greater role for Islam in Libyan life. The government imprisoned its members after alleging the group constituted an illegal political party.

Mr. al-Mansuri's articles were far less confrontational than Mr. el-Jahmi's comments, human rights activists and journalists familiar with his work said. Over the past two years, he published 50 commentaries on Libya News, a Web site that is blocked in Tripoli.

"He didn't want to antagonize the authorities," said Ashur Shamis, the editor of Libya News. "He wanted his message to get across to the people as well as to the government, and he succeeded."

Mr. al-Mansuri knew he could be arrested. Yet he insisted on publishing his articles under his own byline, a practice so rare in Libya that some readers believed Mr. al-Mansuri "was in cahoots with the regime," Mr. Shamis said.

But supporters believe he took a serious risk last January, when he published an article intimating that Libya's system of government, developed by Col. Gadhafi himself, might be headed for obsolescence.

Mr. al-Mansuri believed he had good context for the article, his family said. He wrote it after Libya's prime minister, a reformer, had a heated, televised debate with a member of the country's old guard about the country's future.

Two days after he published that article, a security agency that typically focuses on Islamic groups and opposition figures arrived at Mr. al-Mansuri's home in Tobruk, a forlorn city in eastern Libya where some tribes have organized opposition to the Gadhafi regime. The police did not have a warrant, but they took CDs and computer diskettes, Ali al-Mansuri said.

The next day, Ali al-Mansuri said, the police returned with a search warrant for books, papers and computer media. While looking for a satellite phone – Ali al-Mansuri said the police thought his brother might be communicating with foreigners – they found the gun.

Ali al-Mansuri said the gun is 30 or 40 years old and belonged to their father. His brother kept it on a bookshelf, as a souvenir.

During his trial, Mr. al-Mansuri asked his lawyer to raise the subject of his writings. But defense attorneys advised against it, believing it could make his sentence harsher. A judge sentenced him to 15 months in prison, his family said.

"If you go to a political stand, you may harm your client more than you help him," said Azza Maghur, a prominent lawyer who briefly consulted with the family but did not represent Mr. al-Mansuri. "There was a gun and bullets. You have to deal with it."

The al-Mansuri family later appealed to a human-rights organization run by Col. Gadhafi's influential son, Seif El-Islam Gadhafi.

The organization did not take up his case. In an interview in Tripoli, Seif El-Islam Gadhafi said there could be "a hidden agenda" against Mr. al-Mansuri. But it would be impossible to prove because the police found the weapon, he said.

"Even if the policemen used this trick to get him, they are smart," Mr. Gadhafi said. "And he was not smart enough."

But Mr. Shamis, the Libya News editor, said it would always appear that Mr. al-Mansuri was arrested for his writing, because the police found the weapon the day after they searched his home.

"Even if he had a gun, this man is a bona fide man of letters, a writer and a man with opinions," Mr. Shamis said. "There is always the suspicion there he was arrested for his views rather than anything else."

Mr. al-Mansuri has not been able to appeal his sentence. After a Dallas Morning News reporter visited his family in November, he was moved to a tougher prison, Ali al-Mansuri said.

Seif el-Islam Gadhafi said offenders are often released before their sentences expire, and he expects Mr. al-Mansuri to be released soon.

Ali al-Mansuri said the family hopes that Mr. Gadhafi is right, but they are not counting on it.

Even if he remains in prison, Mr. al-Mansuri has already accomplished part of his goal, Ali al-Mansuri said.

"Abd al-Raziq used to speak opinions that we don't accept," his brother said. "He was not accepted in the society. Now everybody is looking for his writings."