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To freedom, revolution and Canada

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Life in, and after, Gaddafi’s Libya.

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Libya’s cultural and media attaché doesn’t mince words when he speaks about his country, or his past.

Abdol Fattah El Bishty’s willingness to speak his mind has played a big role in shaping his life as a political prisoner, an author, a dissident and now as a booster of his homeland abroad.

Mr. El Bishty grew up in what he called an “aristocratic” family in the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli. As a young man in the 1960s and '70s, he was one of many educated young Libyans who spoke out in favour of liberal rights and democracy for their country, he said.

Voicing those ideas would cost Mr. El Bishty most of his youth. He was one of many young men thrown into prison after a young Muammar Gaddafi promised to sterilize Libya of such liberal-minded advocates, he said. After taking power from the country's monarch in a bloodless coup in 1969, Mr. Gaddafi ruled the oil-wealthy North African nation for 42 years until his downfall and death amid a 2011 revolution. Over the course of his rule, he was known for crushing his opponents.

It was a stroke of bad luck that Mr. El Bishty was caught up in the cross-country campaign of arrests; he had spent most of the two years prior in the United Kingdom being trained for work at an oil company, and had only returned for a vacation, he said.

Mr. El Bishty, then 22 years old, was arrested in April 1973. He wouldn’t be free for another 15 years.

Libya still searching for unity

Today Libya is a country in transition. Mr. El Bishty’s internationally recognized government, based in the east, is competing for authority with what he calls a self-imposed government that has taken root in Libya’s traditional capital, Tripoli.

The east-west split is a result of the power vacuum created by Libya’s 2011 revolution, which culminated in Mr. Gaddafi’s execution at the hands of rebel fighters.

Mr. El Bishty’s government began meeting with the western Libyan government in Morocco on June 8 as part of UN-brokered peace talks, during which Mr. El Bishty said he hopes the two sides can agree to establish a national unity government.

Mr. El Bishty has helped the Libyan Embassy in Ottawa to handle some of the unique challenges that come with representing a government with international legitimacy, but little in the way of infrastructure. Right now he’s considering how to manage a scholarship program for Libyan students in Canada without the use of any dedicated staff, he said.

Libya’s internationally recognized government appointed Mr. El Bishty in 2013 to serve as an attaché as part of an effort to “show a new face to the world” for a country emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, he said.

Mr. El Bishty, an author, poet and former political organizer, said he chose to serve in Canada because “it is far away,” new and different from Europe and the Middle East. The Libyan revolution provided an opportunity for men like him, once told they would die in prison, to serve their country.

Tortured, freed then sentenced to life

Mr. El Bishty and Libya’s other political prisoners—including, for part of the time, 14 other members of his extended family—spent many of their years enduring terrible treatment, he said.

“When we were detained at first, it was in a military prison. And it was very harsh, a lot of torture and very bad, very,”—he said, pausing— “the worst thing you may experience.”

Soldiers at the prison administered group beatings with electrical cables, he said. They never asked him any questions.

“They tortured you to prepare you to say yes to everything,” he said.

Mr. El Bishty and his fellow prisoners were transferred to a civilian prison about six months later, he said. The beatings stopped and prisoners were allowed access to visitors, food from outside the prison and even provided with books from time to time.

The warden of the prison was “anti-Gaddafi,” Mr. El Bishty said, adding he would later be arrested for this inclination.

A year later, a Libyan civilian court ruled that there was no evidence to justify detaining Mr. El Bishty and a group of his fellow prisoners, and ordered their release, he said.

“We were returned the same day to prison, by order of Gaddafi,” he said.

Two years later the prisoners were re-tried by a “people’s court” headed by police and military officers, and sentenced to six years in prison, less the four years already served, he said.

Mr. Gaddafi converted that sentence to 50 years, said Mr. El Bishty.

“We were young, and full of courage and confidence, so we laughed in the cage, we laughed about that,” he said, remembering the moment the prisoners were told of the new sentence.

“We just smiled. But of course, deep inside…you start considering that you are staying all your life in jail.”

‘Everyone is a book’

The prisoners were returned to the military prison, and eventually transferred to Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison, where the torture and abuse continued, he said.

Mr. El Bishty’s cell, which he shared with 13 other inmates, was lit by just a single small window in the prison corridor, he said. Temperatures soared inside the poorly ventilated building.

“In Arabia, prison is hell in summer,” he said.

Mr. El Bishty and his fellow prisoners maintained their morale through the years of captivity by writing poetry and a miniature newspaper—named April, after the month in which they were arrested—on cigarette papers, he said. When they didn’t have access to books, they taught each other about whatever they had studied before their imprisonment.

“Everyone is a book,” he said.     

As the years went by, the Gaddafi government came under pressure from disgruntled Libyans, the international community and an organized and armed opposition group based in the countries surrounding Libya. In 1988, Mr. El Bishty and many of his fellow prisoners were released by the government as a gesture of goodwill, he said.

Mr. Gaddafi, whom Mr. El Bishty described as a “clever” politician, personally drove a bulldozer through the prison gates, and waved the prisoners out to freedom, said Mr. Bishty.  

In the years that followed, Mr. El Bishty fought with Libyan authorities for the right to work. He eventually authored a half-dozen books, some of them political, and had them published in Egypt then smuggled into Libya, he said.

As pressure built towards what would become Libya’s 2011 revolution, Mr. El Bishty began to receive letters from government officials, offering “carrot and stick” incentives to stop encouraging the young people in Zawiya to demonstrate, he said.

Then he received another sort of letter: this one from a friend in one of Libya’s intelligence agencies, warning him that his name was on a list of people who were to be detained.

When the soldiers came for him, he was prepared: he stayed hidden for nine days and nights in “tomb”-like hole nearby, before a friend spirited him away in the trunk of his car, he said.

Mr. El Bishty bounced from safehouse to safehouse, including one across the street from a Libyan army headquarters, before rebel fighters eventually took hold of the territory in which he was hiding.

Once out of hiding, he set upon trying to help rebuild Libya’s political and civil society, eventually earning an appointment to represent the country abroad.

His new job includes urging the government of Canada, among others, to help rebuild a divided Libya. Mr. El Bishty called upon the world’s powers to help enforce the outcome of the upcoming peace talks in Morocco, and ensure Libya does not once again fall under the rule of a military-led government.

NGO head named ambassador to UN

Rosemary McCarney was appointed Canada’s newest envoy to the UN in Geneva June 5, replacing Elissa Golberg.

Ms. McCarney spent most of the past decade serving as president and CEO of Plan Canada, a non-profit focused on lifting girls out of poverty. She will leave that role to take on the UN post in September, according to a Plan Canada press release.

Ms. McCarney has also worked as chair of the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, a collaboration between NGOs focused on one of the government’s top aid priorities. As part of her maternal and child health work, she interviewed Prime Minister Stephen Harper on stage at a global summit on the topic in May 2014 in Toronto.

Her predecessor, Ms. Golberg, is a career diplomat who was appointed to the UN in August 2011, according to a profile on the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development website. She is now assistant deputy minister for the Partnerships for Development Innovation branch.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson also appointed Pierre Giroux, formerly Canada’s ambassador to El Salvador, as high commissioner to Guyana. Mr. Giroux is a veteran of the diplomatic service and the defunct Canadian International Development Agency.

Vincent Le Pape, also a veteran of CIDA and the diplomatic service, was appointed ambassador to Burkina Faso.

pmazereeuw@embassynews.ca

@PJMazereeuw
 

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