Alumnus released from Libyan prison

Elhouni was held in a prison in Libya’s capitol Tripoli.
Elhouni was held in a prison in Libya’s capitol Tripoli.
Image courtesy of
Ali Sadegh Elhouni
Ali Sadegh Elhouni
Idris Ben-Tahir
Idris Ben-Tahir
Photo courtesy of Idris Ben-Tahir

Eight long years without daughters or wife, years inside the impenetrable walls of Abu Salim prison in Libya, are finally over for a Queen’s graduate who was incarcerated for allegedly sympathizing with a group that promoted Libyan democratic reform.

Through those seemingly endless years, Ali Sadegh Elhouni would have had no idea that one man thousands of kilometres away—a man tied to him only through their alma mater—was lobbying night and day for his release.

He may never know this man’s name.

But Idris Ben-Tahir—a self-proclaimed “loyal Queen’s-man”—doesn’t mind.

“Although I had never met Elhouni, I was absolutely elated as to the release that happened so far away, and all of a sudden I’m feeling for it here,” Ben-Tahir said from his home in Ottawa. The retired information scientist attended Queen’s part-time from 1971 to 1974.

He was jolted from his sleep around 7 a.m. on March 3 by a call from David Viveash, the Canadian ambassador to Libya, who notified him of Elhouni’s release the previous day.

“He said ‘I’m sorry, I woke you up,’” Ben-Tahir related, a trill in his voice. “I said, ‘No, no, that’s all right, that’s good news!’”

Elhouni studied at Queen’s as an international student in the early 1990s. His wife, Seham, gave birth to their daughter Essra at Kingston General Hospital in July 1990, while they were living in the city with their other young daughter, Osma. After his graduation in 1993 with an MSc in electrical engineering, the family returned to Libya, where Elhouni found work.

He was arrested there in June 1998. Along with 84 others, he was incarcerated in the capital city of Tripoli, in a prison known for housing political prisoners—a prison where state authorities had massacred hundreds of inmates during a revolt two years earlier.

Most of the 85 prisoners were foreign-trained and foreign-educated intellectuals and professionals, Ben-Tahir said, adding that his lobbying efforts were specifically aimed at securing Elhouni’s freedom. According to Amnesty International Canada, the prisoners belonged to a group known as the Muslim Brothers.

In 2002, a Libyan court convicted the group members for violating Law 71, which bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to principles set by Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the country’s president of 36 years. Sentences ranged from 10 years to life in prison. Two death sentences were handed to the group’s leaders.

But all the prisoners were released last week, amid celebrations in the presence of their families, an anonymous Libyan official told news agency Agence France Presse.

“The situation in Libya is not unblemished, but the fact that some people are being released is a good sign,” said Amnesty International Canada spokesperson John Tackaberry. “[The release] may indicate that there is a greater willingness on the part of the Libyan government to deal with the whole other range of human rights concerns that still exist.”

Tackaberry said Amnesty’s other concerns include problems related to freedom of expression and association, instances of unfair trial followed by the death penalty, poor treatment of migrant workers and asylum seekers, disappearances that haven’t been investigated and arbitrary arrests of people for political reasons.

The Libyan government didn’t clarify how the pardon had come about, news agency All Africa reported earlier this week. Amnesty said the release had been expected for several months. Last year, a committee established by Gadhafi concluded the Muslim Brothers neither used nor advocated violence, and should therefore be freed.

“According to what I have heard from someone, Col. Gadhafi gave a lecture the same day [as the release], saying he will teach the world a lesson in democracy,” Ben-Tahir said, explaining the person he spoke to translated the news item from an Arabic website.

Ben-Tahir doesn’t know what role, if any, his lobbying efforts played in the release, but said that’s not a concern of his.

“[People] gave me a zero per cent chance of success against Col. Gadhafi, because he does not relent,” Ben-Tahir said. “But that is the great point—I never gave up hope, I kept on fighting.”

The Journal first interviewed Ben-Tahir about his efforts in January 2005. At that time, he was working with the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) to buoy his human rights awareness campaign. He hoped the campaign would pressure the Canadian government to raise human rights concerns when then-Prime Minister Paul Martin visited Gadhafi on a trade mission in December 2004.

“We were happy to jump into those efforts,” said Christopher Canning, who worked on the project with Ben-Tahir when he was SGPS VP External last year.

He said the release is a small light for human rights.

“That’s initially why we supported his cause—one, him being a Queen’s alumnus, but also that this speaks to international human rights issues.”

Over the 16 or so months he spent lobbying for Elhouni’s release, Ben-Tahir has accumulated a file an inch and a half thick. It’s full of letters, newspaper clippings and a log documenting his myriad calls to members of parliament, Queen’s administration and the media, urging them to assist the effort.

After considerable legwork, he even secured an address to which he wrote Gadhafi himself, respectfully pleading for Elhouni’s liberation.

“Everybody told me I was stupid because Gadhafi doesn’t listen to anybody—they said that my appeals would go on deaf ears,” he said. “[But] I’ve done my very best. The results speak for themselves.”

Elhouni planned to visit Canadian ambassador to Libya David Viveash sometime during the week following his release, Ben-Tahir said. He added that following his release, Elhouni traveled to the town of Houn, where he’s from.

By press time, the Journal was unable to contact Elhouni’s sister at her home in Benghazi, Libya, where his wife and two daughters had been living. Ben-Tahir suggested this is likely because Elhouni’s family had traveled to meet him and reunite.

Tackaberry said Amnesty welcomes the prisoners’ release. However, the organization is concerned it may be conditional.

“The Muslim Brothers, in particular, were reportedly made to sign pledges that they would not undertake any political activities,” a release says. “Amnesty International calls for this restriction to be lifted.”

—With files from the Wall Street Journal and Amnesty International

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