Nearly a half-century ago, in September 1969, this reporter talked in Tripoli with a 27-year-old Libyan Royal Army lieutenant who, with some fellow young revolutionary-minded officers, had just overthrown King Idriss Senoussi in an almost bloodless coup.
Today, the whole world knows the same man, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, as the world's longest-lasting ruler. In 2003, he yielded to US overtures to abandon secret programs to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Since then, Colonel Qaddafi; his reform-minded, Western-educated son, Saif, and Libyan diplomats work constantly to show how Libya has changed.
No longer, they proclaim, is Libya interested in acquiring WMD, blowing up Western airliners, or financing armed guerrilla and terrorist movements from South Africa to Ireland. The result of such improved behavior? Crippling economic sanctions imposed since 1982 have been lifted. Libya has been erased from the US blacklist of terrorist nations. And Libya has been able to secure new trade deals and investments in its prodigious, still partly unmapped oil and natural-gas reserves.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair jetted to Tripoli on his farewell African tour, enthusing about his "easy personal relationship" with Qaddafi, whom US President Ronald Reagan once called "a flake." Mr. Blair snared for the global giant British Petroleum a $900 million gas-exploration contract, after authorizing new British arms deals with Libya.
American analysts and government officials used to fret over Libya's Tamoil company, which bought up refineries and service-station chains in the West. This June, Colony Capital, a California-based private-equity group run by billionaire Thomas Barrack, purchased a 65-percent controlling stake in Tamoil for $5.4 billion. Libya will retain Tamoil Africa.
But there are dark aspects to this saga. Blair's welcome of Qaddafi back into the "respectable" community of nations, following President Bush's decision last year to resume full US-Libyan diplomatic relations, allows Qaddafi, as a new soldier in the global "war on terror," to proceed ruthlessly against domestic opponents.
The humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) is warning against a US decision to send home a Libyan Guantánamo detainee, Abdul Raouf al-Qassim. HRW says the US is ignoring Mr. Qassim's fear of torture by relying on a no-torture pledge from Libya, which has a history of torture.
In April, a special British immigration court ruled that Britain couldn't send home two members of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which opposes Qaddafi, because of a real risk that the Libyan government won't abide by promises of humanitarian treatment of returnees.
During past months, HRW, Amnesty International, and similar groups have insisted that hundreds of political opponents of Qaddafi remain incarcerated and are often tortured. Mr. Bush and other Western leaders have joined Bulgaria in urging release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been jailed since 1999, tortured, and twice sentenced to death for allegedly deliberately infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV-AIDS – a charge branded by leading international experts as false and a coverup for bad conditions in a Benghazi hospital.
In Britain's House of Commons, university lecturer George Joffee cited the medics' case as one of the "tragic contradictions" resulting from one-man leadership of Libya. Families of the children have asked for 10 million euros (about $13.3 million) for each child, and Libya may release the condemned medics if a deal is reached. Mr. Joffee indicated that the claim seems intended to offset compensation Libya has paid and still partially owes for admitting "legal responsibility" (but not guilt) for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
To complicate matters, relatives of victims of Pan Am 103 are demanding that Congress withhold State Department funding for improvement of US-Libyan ties until Tripoli pays delayed installments of compensation for families of the 270 victims. The Bush administration has requested $115.9 million to build an embassy in Tripoli and another $1.15 million in aid it says will help normalize relations with Qaddafi's realm.
Not only this, but several senior Scottish judges and prosecutors in the trial and conviction of Ali Megrahi, one of two Libyans accused of the Pan Am bombing, are now declaring that prosecution and trial were flawed by flimsy or fabricated evidence. If the Scottish appeal process should finally declare Mr. Megrahi innocent and release him, the entire compensation process might be placed in question.
Western governments should insist that Qaddafi prove his good faith about democratic and judicial reform. Qaddafi could make an excellent start by releasing the unfortunate medics and publishing facts about the scores of his opponents who have been jailed or "disappeared."
• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East and North Africa for more than 45 years. One of his books is "Libyan Sandstorm: The Complete Account of Qaddafi's Revolution."