Last week's Columbia University conference on democracy in Libya was co-sponsored by a university known in the late 1970s and 1980s for publicly hanging student dissidents.
The conference, held on the Columbia campus on March 22 and 23, featured participation from professors and students at al-Fatah University, whose Tripoli campus was fitted with a gallows on which to perform public hangings of dissidents to mark the April 7, 1976, anniversary of student demonstrations there. The practice of public hangings at the university persisted between 1978 and 1988, according to opposition groups.
The dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, Lisa Anderson, told The New York Sun last week that the Libyan government had no role in financing the conference, as was alleged by Mohamed Eljahmi, the brother of an imprisoned human rights leader, Fathi Eljahmi.
Yet the official literature for the conference lists "the international green book center" as one of the event's co-sponsors. According to a spokesman for Libya's embassy in Cairo, Egypt, that institution is funded entirely by the Libyan government through its secretariat of culture and information.
"This belongs to the secretariat of culture and information," the embassy's press attache said when asked about the center named for the Libyan leader's book on society, politics and culture that distils the state's organizing ideology.
Already the two-day conference, that featured a televised address from Colonel Gadhafi lambasting other representative democracies, has been touted in Libya's state run media. An article in the Jamahiriya news service said the conference's organizers at Columbia were grateful for the opportunity to "exchange ideas and thoughts about the third universal theory and direct democracy."
Under this theory, Libya lacks direct elections and instead vests power in what are called "people's committees." But because of this system no opposition parties or independent newspapers are allowed to operate.
The story in Jamahiriya reported that Ms. Anderson was a particularly gracious host. "Dr. Lisa Anderson, the Dean of SIPA at Columbia University, expressed gratitude especially to the Leader for taking valuable time to speak, which has enriched the conference. Affirming her great happiness to the result of the constructive dialogue and discussion. She praised what the Leader "Muammar Al-Gadhafi" has pointed out about mind-based faith and dialogue for the benefit of mankind," it said.
Ms. Anderson would not return emails asking for comment. The article went on to say, "After the conclusion of the conference, Dr. Anderson, expressed to the Jamaheiriya Press corps, her hope more meetings and conferences would take place, pointing out that this experiment was magnificent."
Last week her comments to the Sun were less enthusiastic. She described Gadhafi's speech as "what you would expect from the author of 'The Green Book.'"
The involvement of al-Fatah University however has particularly incensed the brother of imprisoned human rights activist, Fathi Eljahmi. In an interview yesterday, Mohamed Eljahmi said, "This is not only insulting to my brother, it's also insulting to the 11 people who died a month ago, killed in Ben Ghazi by the revolutionary committee and security services, not to mention the memories of the students that were publicly hanged on the campus of al Fatah university on the April 7 commemorations."
According to a former student at al-Fatah University and former political prisoner, Mohamed Buisier, the scenes of the gallows on campus were often galling. "I saw a video of a friend of mine, Mohammed Ihfaf, being hung in al-Fatah University in Tripoli. We went to prison together on April 18, 1973 when we were both students at the school of engineering. In 1983 they brought him to the parking lot of the university where he was fully dressed. He appeared surprised and started shaking when they took him to the gallows. They took him by force."
Mr. Buisier said the revolutionary committee required every student at the university, between 9,000 and 10,000, to stand and watch the execution as the executioners enthusiastically sang a song with the lyric, "We don't need more words or phrases, just kill the enemy of the revolution."
Mr. Buisier said that the first rows of the audience for the execution were packed with members of the revolutionary committee cheering on the public murder, but the video he saw from 1983 also captured many women students crying and placing their hands over their faces.
Mr. Buisier, who attended last week's conference, said he found it distasteful that Columbia would partner with al- Fatah University. At the same time, he said, "It was a good thing to bring them there and hear what they have to say. They ended up embarrassing themselves." Mr. Buisier also said that he found Assistant Secretary of State, David Welch's address to be "very strong."
In 2003, the CIA and British MI6 completed secret negotiations that resulted in renewing diplomatic ties between America and Libya in exchange for Gadhafi disarming his nuclear program. Since then, Tripoli has hosted a series of official American diplomats, not to mention American oil executives, looking to renew ties with the one time pariah.
On March 2 the Libyan regime freed 132 political prisoners. Fathi Eljahmi however remains in jail. According to his brother, the Eljahmi family has not seen Fathi since June of last year. He has been held since March of 2004.
Susan Cohen, the mother of Theodora Cohen, one of the victims of the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am 103 jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland yesterday said the Columbia conference was to be expected in light of America's warming ties with Libya.
"I feel [the Columbia University conference] is not surprising, but it is shameless," she said. "What our government did in rehabilitating Muammar Gadhafi, one of the major terrorists of the world who murdered my daughter, was also shameless. When you encourage a terrorist like Gadhafi, then this sort of thing happens."