March 18, 2009 / 6:39 AM / 10 years ago

US urges Libya to release political dissident

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States urged Libya on Tuesday to release an ailing political dissident held since 2002 on a series of charges, including trying to overthrow the government and insulting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Fathi al-Jahmi, a former provincial governor, is currently detained in a Tripoli medical center. Relatives say he is suffering from heart disease, advanced stage diabetes and high blood pressure and that his health is deteriorating.

“We have established a dialogue with Libya across the full range of issues, including human rights, and continue to call for the unconditional release of Dr. al-Jahmi as well as his ability to travel and seek medical care where he wishes,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood when asked about Jahmi.

Wood said the United States viewed “with concern unconfirmed reports” that Jahmi’s condition was worsening.

He added that Jahmi had been allowed to “sporadically” receive visitors but added that the United States believed his condition had “generally improved” since being transferred to the medical center in the Libyan capital last March.

But Mohamed al-Jahmi, the U.S.-based brother of the dissident, said relatives who saw Jahmi last week believed his health was “in rapid decline.”

“He cannot get out of bed, he has a colostomy, his legs are swollen and discolored,” said Jahmi, who added that his brother was being held in a hospital room infested with cockroaches and bugged with audio and video devices.

The dissident’s brother urged the Obama administration to send a diplomat to the hospital to verify his condition.

Jahmi’s family hoped the Obama administration would take up his case, particularly since Vice President Joe Biden had raised it with Gaddafi at a 2004 meeting. Biden was then a U.S. senator and member of the Senate foreign relations committee.

Jahmi was first arrested in 2002 after he criticized Gaddafi and called for open elections, a free press and the release of political prisoners.

He was released in March of 2004 after Biden’s meeting with Gaddafi and then re-arrested later that month after he gave interviews where he repeated his criticism of the African leader.

He was then charged with trying to overthrow the government, insulting Gaddafi and contacting foreign authorities, including Western diplomats.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought up his case when she visited Libya last September, the first trip there by a top U.S. diplomat in 55 years.

Appearing at the same news conference with Rice, Libya’s foreign minister said Jahmi had not suffered injustice and was not under “any kind of pressure.”

The United States sent its first ambassador to Libya at the end of last year after decades of frosty ties that began to turn around after Libya agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

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