NEW YORK – In the latest step in Libya's international rehabilitation since scrapping its secret nuclear weapons program and sponsoring airline terror bombings, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi plans to answer questions about democracy and academic freedom in a teleconference Thursday.
The Columbia University conference is billed as the first major meeting of American and Libyan academics and officials in 25 years, a two-day affair whose climax will be Gadhafi's participation via live video feed in a panel discussion on the prospect for the spread of democracy.
The dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, Lisa Anderson, is to moderate the panel discussion and put questions to Gadhafi, who came to power in a military coup in 1969. Although Libya is no longer viewed by the West as a rogue state on a par with North Korea and Iran, Gadhafi could face tough questions about riots last month that left 11 Libyans dead.
Libya was demonized for years by the United States as a sponsor of various terrorist groups as far-flung as the Irish Republican Army and Palestinian factions, and for trying to undermine pro-Western governments in Africa.
Libya was also blamed for the 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, and a West Berlin disco bombing that killed two American soldiers in 1986. President Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya 10 days after the disco bombing; Libya said the raids killed 41 people, including an adopted daughter of Gadhafi, and wounded 226.
Libya eventually reached a $2.7 billion financial settlement in 2003 with the families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing, and the next year paid $170 million compensation to the families of the 170 victims of the 1989 bombing of a French UTA passenger jet.
Relations between Washington and Tripoli have improved since Libya's sudden decision in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to dismantle its clandestine nuclear weapons program under international inspection.
In June 2004, the United States opened a liaison office in Tripoli, 24 years after Washington closed its embassy in the oil-rich North African country.
But Libya's repressive one-party rule, Gadhafi's personality cult and spasms of violence could prompt tough questions from the Columbia academic audience.
It was widely reported that the Libyan riots last month were in reaction to the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslims consider blasphemous.
Gadhafi told Italy's SkyTG24 Monday that more protests against Italian citizens and interests in Libya were "to be expected." He said the protests were not related to the cartoons, but in reaction to hard feelings over Italian rule of all or parts of Libya from 1911 to 1943.
The Columbia conference was billed as an opportunity to "reintroduce Libya's academic community to the United States," and was co-sponsored by SIPA and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States and al- Fatah University and the Green Book Center in Libya. The Green Book is Gadhafi's guidebook of political philosophy.
Among the listed participants are Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, former U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and al-Fatah University's associate professor of international relations, Yourself M. Guiana Aswan.
The State Department, in its latest worldwide survey of human rights practices, rated Libya "poor" but said it had shown some improvement. It said Libya had a large but unknown number of political prisoners, and severely limits freedom of speech and the press.
In a January op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune, Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth said: "Still, Libya remains a closed and tightly controlled society. There is no independent press or civil society, and there are no political groups that are not officially sanctioned."
"On pain of imprisonment, Libyans are not allowed to criticize the government, its political system, or its leader," Roth said.