My one and only visit to Libya was exactly 13 years ago to cover the 27th anniversary of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's coup. There were no flights into or out of the country, still under UN sanctions. Attending the celebrations were heads of African states Gaddafi had turned to in frustration at the Arab world and the leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan.
The latter, a news magnet at the time after making several controversial remarks, was touring "rogue states" in a snub at the U.S. administration's designation of those states as such and was to receive a human rights award from the Libyan leader -- a classic Gaddafi move of embracing those who snubbed his enemies.
The U.S. Treasury Dept. warned Farrakhan that if he accepted any of the $1 million the award was reportedly worth he'd face charges of breaking the embargo against Libya.
Fast forward to the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi's coup -- Sept. 1 -- and nowadays billions of dollars enter and leave every day on planes carrying officials and business people eager to sign oil, trade and defense deals with Libya.
It has been rehabilitated to such an extent that Gaddafi has hobnobbed with the Presidents of France and Italy in their respective capitals and in July, the Swiss president himself flew to Libya to apologize for the brief detention in 2008 of one of Gaddafi's sons for allegedly beating up two of his servants.
How did the world's longest serving dictator make it from diplomatic deep freeze to preparing to make his first ever visit to the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly in September?
Did he clean up his human rights record at home and end arbitrary arrests? Stop squandering Libya's oil wealth and distribute it instead among its consistently poor population, as he promises to do every year? Unmuzzle the Libyan press and lift the ban on political parties?
Libyans can always dream. They barely figure into the reasons the outside world seems to be enthralled with Libya.
During those 40th anniversary celebrations, you can guarantee you won't hear much about two high profile Libyan prisoners -- albeit from opposite ends of the political spectrum -- who died within a couple of weeks of one another earlier this year. You've got to hand it to Gaddafi - he does not discriminate in his repression.
Senior al-Qaeda militant Ali Mohammed Abdel-Aziz al-Fakheri, better known by his nom de guerre Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, had been rendered to Egypt where he was tortured, after which the U.S. handed him over to Libya, which sentenced him to life in the desert prison of Abu Salim, where he reportedly hanged himself in May.
The second man was Libya's most prominent political dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, who died on May 20 in a Jordanian hospital where he was flown in a coma after years of imprisonment in Tripoli for criticizing Qaddafi and for calling for greater freedoms for Libyans.
Remember those two men as you read about Gaddafi's "makeover" during the upcoming celebrations. It is essentially one long bribe of the world's conscience.
Gaddafi has paid compensation for the mid-air bombings of a French airliner over Niger and a U.S. airliner over Scotland. In 2003, just as the U.S. became mired in Iraq and its non-existent weapons of destruction, Gaddafi realized no one was scared of him anymore and voluntarily gave up his weapons of mass destruction programs.
The money trail started soon after.
Farrakhan couldn't bring home any of that award money Gaddafi wanted to give him -- apparently to build schools and provide social services that Gaddafi loved to remind the U.S. it had failed to provide for its black population (never mind what Libyans lacked under his decades-long tutelage) -- but today it's all about the money you can take home from Libya.
Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz defended his spectacular apology by saying it was the only way to secure the release of two Swiss citizens essentially held hostage by Tripoli. Swiss companies, already lining up deals, had no trouble with his sorry.
Questions of more troublesome "transactions" have hounded Scotland's release -- apparently on compassionate grounds -- of former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, jailed for life for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people and which brought the sanctions onto Libya.
Was he released to secure business deals? Was Megrahi innocent as he claimed all along? It doesn't matter. For Gaddafi, Megrahi's homecoming was the sweetest of early anniversary gifts.
During that 1996 anniversary visit, I got into a lot of trouble with the Libyans because of Farrakhan. The news team I was traveling with and I wanted to stake out his hotel, but our minders from the Information Ministry would not let us out of the gated tourist resort where they kept us visiting journalists.
Branded a trouble maker, the minders tried to eject me from an impromptu Gaddafi news conference a few days later. One tried to grab my tape recorder -- I'm pretty sure I bit that hand. Then one of Gaddafi's male bodyguards -- he famously travels with the women guards but he has male guards, too -- and I got into a pushing match which he tried to end by twisting my nipple.
Outraged, I appealed to the "Brother Colonel" as we call Gaddafi in Egypt. He stopped in mid-sentence, we made eye contact for three or four seconds and then he continued as if nothing was happening. After the news conference, an Algerian journalist told me he heard the minders say "just shoot her."
And so, when someone on the PR team working on Gaddafi's 40th anniversary celebrations wrote to invite me, you'll understand why I declined.
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