Qaddafi's 'scapegoat' worries for captives

Ashraf El-Hojouj says he fears for the lives and safety of the Libyan opposition supporters who have fallen in the hands of government forces.

THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS // It was not torture that made Ashraf El-Hojouj crack, he says. He supplied Muammar Qaddafi's security agents with the false confession they demanded, he recalls, only after they threatened his family.

The torment did not stop there. "They wanted me to kill myself - that was their scenario." That message was communicated in an unmistakable way, Mr El-Hojouj says. The agents left a noose in his cell.

For all of its horror, this treatment is commonplace in Libyan jails, international human rights groups say. What sets Mr El-Hojouj's case apart - and illustrates the lengths to which Col Qaddafi's regime will go to defend itself - is the reason that he was imprisoned in the first place.

Mr El-Hojouj, a Palestinian, was one month away from finishing his medical training as a doctor when he was arrested in 1999, accused together with five Bulgarian nurses of deliberately infecting blood with HIV at El-Fatih hospital in Benghazi.

The previous year, more than 400 children treated at the hospital were infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids. International experts defended the accused, saying that the most likely cause was poor hygiene at the hospital, not a conspiracy. More recently, revelations from WikiLeaks and from officials who deserted the Qaddafi government assert that corruption was behind the epidemic and that government officials had purchased cheap, tainted blood from abroad.

Now living in the Netherlands after having been extradited in a deal with the European Union in 2007, Mr El-Hojouj, who has retracted his confession, says that he fears for the lives and safety of the Libyan opposition supporters who have fallen into the hands of government forces.

"I have friends there, I have people I know there, I lived with them. I don't hate the Libyan people. I hate this regime," he says.

As he struggles to stay in power and gain back territory lost to the rebels, Col Qaddafi says he will "show no mercy" to those who have opposed him.

Glimpses of what awaits captured rebels were provided by journalists from the BBC who were detained and beaten for several days earlier this month. They reported even graver abuses against captured fighters and civilians.

Given the track record of Col Qaddafi, Amnesty International said that it was deeply concerned about the fate of rebel fighters and possibly civilians who have fallen into the hand of government forces.

"There are many people who are unaccounted for and we believe they may have disappeared. Maybe they are being held, maybe they are dead," said Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme.

Amid the upheaval in Libya, Mr El-Hojouj and his Dutch lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, have launched a new case against Col Qaddafi. He and 12 officers who are said to have participated in torturing Mr El-Hojou have been summoned to appear in court here. In a civil case scheduled to start in June, Mr El-Hojouj is demanding US$1 million (Dh3.67m) in compensation for his suffering.

"International law is very clear. He has a right to compensation," Mrs Zegveld said on Thursday. The fact that Mr El-Hojouj has been tortured had been well established, she said.

Nevertheless, the case may not be all that straightforward because it involves a head of state. The Dutch government is currently holding up the summons, said Mrs Zegveld. "Normally it is cleared within a few hours or a day, now we have been waiting for a week."

The Dutch foreign ministry which, according to Mrs Zegveld, would be involved because the case has to do with international law, denied that it was handling the summons.

But Mrs Zegveld speculated that the delay was because of questions of international law and Col Qaddafi's immunity as a head of state. Because of his diplomatic status, he was not even initially included in the summons. "But when the unrest started, I included Qaddafi because his immunity looked shaky because of steps taken by, for example, Britain and the UN. His position was compromised," she said. Among the steps was the decision by the UN Security Council to refer Col Qaddafi and Libyan officials to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible war crimes prosecution.

Before the unrest, European governments had not been keen at all to pursue complaints against Libya, she recalled. The HIV case had been an obstacle to the normalisation of ties and trade between Libya and the EU.

"The obstacle was that those people [the five Bulgarian nurses and Mr El-Hojouj] had to get out but, once they were out, that was that. They wanted to leave it behind, they wanted to move on," she said about the attitude in Europe's capitals.

Mr El-Hojouj is still bitter about what he sees as the indifference of the world to the hardest part of his ordeal, the torture and his treatment at the hands of Libya's security forces. "Nobody opened his mouth for the first four years. After we received a first death sentence, in 2004, we were given some attention," he said, adding that a second death sentence was handed down when the case was sent back to a lower court by Libya's high court.

He now warns that the treatment of Col Qaddafi's enemies may be ignored again soon and vows to keep speaking out against the Libyan regime. "I think I speak for thousands in Libya who are now being tortured and who suffer. I'm adding my voice to their voice to raise this issue."

Last year, Mr El-Hojouj published a book about his experiences in which he details the horrific treatment that he received at the hands of Col Qaddafi's men, including electrical shocks and sexual assault. Ghost-written for him in Dutch, the title translates as "Qaddafi's scapegoat".

He hopes that the book will be translated into Arabic, to show the people in the region what kind of regime Col Qaddafi is running. "I supported Qaddafi when I was young. I was blind, he was a symbol also for me as a Palestinian. But all those symbols are nothing."