That Colonel Gaddafi: fun guy, huh?

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The Independent Online

In one of the more surreal moments of Tony Blair's encounter with Colonel Gaddafi last week, the Libyan leader drew a diagram of a totalitarian state, consisting of a circle with a dot in the centre. Sadly, the Prime Minister passed on the opportunity to flourish in return a model of parliamentary democracy, assembled from sticky-backed plastic and some old yoghurt cartons. Gaddafi will have to glean what he can from Blair's formal gift, a leather-bound volume about the Palace of Westminster, although it would have been a nice gesture if he had thrown in a copy of the Foreign Office's annual human rights report as well. This weighty publication, launched by Jack Straw last autumn, opens with an unambiguous declaration that "human rights are one of the key considerations that go into the formation of foreign policy".

In one of the more surreal moments of Tony Blair's encounter with Colonel Gaddafi last week, the Libyan leader drew a diagram of a totalitarian state, consisting of a circle with a dot in the centre. Sadly, the Prime Minister passed on the opportunity to flourish in return a model of parliamentary democracy, assembled from sticky-backed plastic and some old yoghurt cartons. Gaddafi will have to glean what he can from Blair's formal gift, a leather-bound volume about the Palace of Westminster, although it would have been a nice gesture if he had thrown in a copy of the Foreign Office's annual human rights report as well. This weighty publication, launched by Jack Straw last autumn, opens with an unambiguous declaration that "human rights are one of the key considerations that go into the formation of foreign policy".

It goes on: "The UK government's view is that the promotion and protection of human rights is both self-evidently morally right and firmly in our national interest." Human rights represent "standards and benchmarks by which governments can legitimately be judged and held to account by their own citizens and by others". So what guarantees on human rights and democracy has the Prime Minister extracted from our eccentric new ally in North Africa? None, according to Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien on Thursday's Newsnight. Gaddafi, he explained, "has got a particular view on democracy which we wouldn't share".

You can say that again. The Libyan regime, according to another report, has maintained "an extensive security apparatus". The result is "a multi-layered, pervasive surveillance system that monitored and controlled the activities of individuals". Security personnel routinely torture prisoners during interrogations or for punishment, with favoured methods including chaining to walls, electric shocks, applying corkscrews to the back, pouring lemon juice into open wounds, breaking fingers and withholding medical treatment, suffocating with plastic bags, denying food and water, hanging by the wrists, suspension from poles, burning with cigarettes, attacking with dogs and beatings on the soles of the feet.

This dismal catalogue comes not from Amnesty International but the US State Department, in its annual report on human rights violations around the world. Human rights organisations go further, claiming that Gaddafi is holding as many as 2,000 political prisoners, mostly at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. They also allege that between 900 and 1,300 prisoners disappeared in 1996, presumed murdered when the security forces turned artillery on them.

Fun guy, huh? With his trademark sunglasses and flamboyant clothes, Gaddafi is shaping up nicely as the Idi Amin de nos jours, a nasty dictator who is smart enough to play up to the prejudices of an eager Western press. The British government has even promised to provide him with military training, without first getting guarantees that his soldiers will not be used against Libyan citizens. "We will want some real assurances from the Libyans on that," O'Brien blustered, prompting suspicions that the Government's commitment to human rights is the latest casualty of the "war on terror". Gaddafi's crimes are not on the scale of Saddam, but his regime is certainly worse than that of Fidel Castro, which rightly gets a pasting in the Foreign Office's human rights report.

This has led to some fascinating speculation, not least the suggestion that Blair is once again doing George Bush's dirty work. Both coalition partners, the theory goes, are desperate for a spectacular success in the fight against international terrorism, but the American President cannot possibly be seen to shake hands with Gaddafi in an election year. So it's all down to the Prime Minister, who certainly did not look a happy man as he shared a joke with the dictator in his big tent south of Tripoli.

Personally, I can't help wondering whether Blair's rapprochement with the Libyan dictator signals a return to realpolitik, in which democracy and human rights are an optional extra - the very policy that Robin Cook, during his time as Foreign Secretary, tried so hard to change. What happens in two years' time if Gaddafi's prisons are as full as ever, his torturers just as enthusiastic? I can only assume that Saddam is chewing the carpet, assuming that word of the Libyan tyrant's stunning coup has reached his heavily guarded prison in Iraq.

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