It has been more than 40 years since the socialist-nationalist-Islamic revolution in Libya, which brought to power the eccentric colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Since then the country has sank into the arbitrary rule of a small circle close to the leader. As many other states who take pride in their "rule by the people for the people", the North African country also subdued to harsh and authoritarian practices. Just to mention a few instances, political association is punished with long prison sentences or even capital punishment, while peaceful protests against the government result in forced disappearance. Female victims of abuse and violence are detained in prison-like rehabilitation centers. On top of that the country suffers trade and arms embargos because of its blunt and intimidating anti-Western policies, including sponsored terrorist attacks.
Recently the undemocratic regime in Libya has shown some willingness to change and restored diplomatic relations with US and other countries. The UN also lifted the trade embargo after Libya took the responsibility for the Lockerbie terrorist attack. But how much can a sworn despot really change? Does admitting after 10 years that you ordered the murder of over 200 innocent people reconcile you with the international community? Or it is the cynical package deal for lives, military trade agreements and lucrative oil contracts that does so?
Let's not be deluded so easily - Muammar Gaddafi is still the same despotic leader who wrote the Green Book of political inspirations for his nation 40 years ago. He only sometimes puts on sheep's clothing in international negotiations. Sometimes.
Last week he embarrassed Switzerland one more time byfailing to alllow two Swiss citizens and former detainees leave the country. They had been detained with no charges for about a year as a response to the arrest of Gaddafi's son in Switzerland last summer. He was then charged with physical assault and later released on bail - a normal situation in a country with respect for human rights and the rule of law. The Libyan leader however called this a provocation and demanded that Switzerland's political leadership overrule the independent judiciary. The Swiss president had to apologize for this recently, but it was not enough and the Swiss were only released from prison, but not granted exit visas.
We should not forget how last week the Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi was welcomed in Libya as a hero, after having been sentenced for the Lockerbie terrorist act in 1988. By the time Gaddafi took the responsibility for the deadly blast, he was committing another terrorist act. Between 1999 and 2007 five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were detained, tortured and twice sentenced to death for supposedly deliberately starting an HIV epidemic. Although numerous international HIV experts proved that the epidemic had started due to poor sanitation in hospitals and before the convicts even arrived to the country, Libya only released them after gaining international trade concessions.
So the morals: authoritarians do not change easily. After 40 years Gaddafi keeps on tantalizing the world with his cheap tricks. And he even dares blackmail democratic countries to abandon their principles. This does not deserve trade contracts and lifting sanctions, but rather loud condemnation.
Ivan Kalburov holds an MA in International Relations from CEU, Budapest. He wrties a regualr blog at http://criticae.wordpress.com/.