By Darren Devine
He abandoned a comfortable job as a health professional in Cardiff to risk life and limb in his native Libya helping oust Colonel Gaddafi. With the dictator now firmly consigned to history, Nizar Mhani tells Darren Devine of his hopes for his country.
Nizar Mhani is an unlikely revolutionary. Business rather than politics dominate his immediate family history.
Parents Ali, 71, and Zohra, 65, ran hotels around the world and in Libya, choosing to remain insulated from the country’s politics that for four decades were dominated by one man – Colonel Gaddafi.
That was until their son decided to change both his country’s and his family’s history.
Inspired by the wave of protests that first gripped the Arab world a year ago Mhani quickly packed his bags and hopped on a plane to the Libyan capital Tripoli.
His activism under the nose of an enraged regime he always managed to elude is now the stuff of legend.
When the 30-year-old health professional arrived in Tripoli last February after spending more than a decade in Cardiff, Gaddafi’s bloody riposte was already in full swing.
And though his activism helped changed the face of Libya, Mhani insists his protests were not about politics, but “life”. Mhani, the youngest of five children, whose three sisters and one brother are all FGM members, said: “We don’t believe we’re politically driven or what we do is political in any way.
“While our ultimate result was to overthrow a political regime, what we did was an act of freedom – to free a generation and to break a cycle of oppression and repression in a whole country. And while it has political repercussions, I think it’s about life and the freedom of our people.”
He kept a record of his protests on Facebook and used a pirated satellite dish to ensure the world’s media – effectively imprisoned by Gaddafi at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli – saw far more of Libya than the regime’s propaganda.
He became the focus of a manhunt by Gaddafi’s forces, who dismissed him as a rat that had to be hanged. And his family was targeted by a regime ready to go to any lengths to bring about his capture.
A cousin was arrested and given electric shocks by the police and the security forces threatened to take away the children of one of his sisters.
Not surprisingly, the protests caused consternation within the family, who were torn between feeling he was writing their name into Libyan history and fearing the agitation served no purpose.
But having seen Gaddafi killed after months of fighting Mhani survived the dictator’s brutality and is now back in Cardiff, pursuing his medical career.
So what now for his dream of seeing Gaddafi’s gangsters replaced by democracy? Mhani accepts that in a country with no tradition of voting, the road to democracy will be rocky.
The United Nation’s Libya envoy, Ian Martin, told the Security Council in New York on Wednesday that more than 8,000 pro-Gaddafi supporters are being held by militia groups in secret detention centres.
Gaddafi may have gone, but the bitter feud between those loyal to him and militias bent on revenge means murderous violence remains.
Four people died in clashes in former Gaddafi stronghold Bani Walid on Monday and some suggest the country’s Arab spring revolution has become a civil war.
Mhani said: “The description of civil war or even being on the brink of civil war would largely be an exaggeration.
“All in all, since the fall of Gaddafi I’m positive. I think things have improved everyday, but the rate of improvement and progress is not perhaps what some expected.
“There’s an element of in-fighting and an element of disharmony between certain groups. I think a lot of us expected this – no-one thought it would be plain sailing.
“The consensus in Libya is that the revolution to get rid of Gaddafi is over and that was probably the easy part. Now it’s time for the revolution of the mind, and this is the bit that’s going to take longest and probably the most difficult and challenging. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about how difficult it will be.
“We’re just not accustomed to democracy and democratic values. We just don’t know how important it is for those that govern us to be transparent.
“We’re used to an autocratic authority, doing as it pleases, when it pleases and how it pleases.”
But for all its problems Mhani remains confident that Libya will never again allow itself to be ruled by a dictator like Gaddafi. The sacrifices Libyans made were too great to simply replace one despot with another.
And not least by Mhani’s family – his cousin Suleiman Mhani, 19, died on the day of Tripoli’s liberation on August 20 after being shot in the head by Gaddafi’s retreating forces.
Mhani added: “We (the FGM) just released a social awareness video titled ‘Lest we forget’. It’s about the people who gave up so much in the struggle for freedom.
“And what makes me so positive is that, in essence, out of so much heartache and sorrow, and I myself lost a cousin and many friends in the revolution, comes the determination to succeed.
“Libyans lost so much and gave up so much and struggled and fought so much to be where we are right now that there is no Libyan who would accept an autocratic leader again.
“There is no Libyan who would accept anyone who would give anything but their all to Libya as a Libyan president or prime minister.”
But just as the international community has expressed fears over how events in Libya are unfolding, similar concerns have been voiced about the fate of Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam.
Libya has said it wants him tried at home for crimes against humanity, but the International Criminal Court (ICC) suggests a fair hearing is only possible at The Hague.
Mhani knows that he and the other revolutionaries owe a debt of gratitude to the ICC.
When they asked the ICC to declare Gaddafi’s son and the dictator’s most senior henchmen war criminals, it listened and agreed.
But he also believes the clamour to see Gaddafi’s son punished in his own country will be difficult to resist.
“This is a very, very delicate situation. I would like nothing more than to see Saif al-Islam, who was responsible for the murder and destruction of much and many in our country, tried in Libya by Libyans. I think it will be healing for Libya and bring closure and add a sense of pride to Libya.
“The argument is we don’t have a precedent for trying such criminals, but if we don’t start, we’ll never develop that precedent.
“But we cannot turn our backs on the ICC. We were in Tripoli during the resistance, and we were calling long and hard for Saif al-Islam as well as other regime members to be classified as international criminals. When they issued arrest warrants, the whole of Libya rejoiced and it added credibility to our cause.
“It suddenly became a cause against international criminals.
“Now we’re free, we can’t suddenly turn our back on the ICC.”
As a compromise, he wants him tried in Libya by Libyans, but with ICC supervision.
But wherever he goes on trial, Mhani believes he must be “punished in the most forceful of ways”.
“I believe he’s responsible for mass murder, for the destruction of Libyan towns and cities and for the rape of Libyan women. If the law we will be trying him under imposes capital punishment, then I feel he should have capital punishment.
“He should be punished with the most forceful of punishments – whether that’s capital punishment or life imprisonment.”
Mhani, who calls himself a devoted Muslim, suggests Islam will have a ‘pivotal’ role to play in shaping the new Libya.
But a moderate Islam that embraces full citizenship rights for women.
“The biggest role we have to play as Libyans and members of civil society institutions is to educate Libyans, as well as the international community, as to what Islam really means and how it can help.
“Islam is not the image of the burka, the man in the suicide belt or the oppression of women. In doing so, we’ll alleviate the fear people have of Islam.
“Libya is a very moderate country, made up of moderate peace-loving people.
“There is no-one with an agenda to oppress women or ban women from involvement in society, schools or from driving or anything like that, which seems synonymous with Islam in this day and age.”
For someone who took such risks to wrench his country free of Gaddafi’s stranglehold, a permanent return to help build the new Libya would seem like an obvious move.
But Mhani believes he can work as effectively for change from outside Libya.
“I’m still quite heavily involved in Libya and intend to go back as often as I can.
“It’s pretty much a European destination when it comes to flights – it’s just a three-and-a-half hour flight from the UK.
“In this day and age of high-speed telecommunications and travel, I think it becomes less critical to be somewhere in order to help that place.
“I think I can be of help to Libya even without being in Libya.
“If I’m honest, I don’t have an appetite for politics. I have an appetite for activism and social development and being part of the building of civil institutions in Libya.
“My mind is elsewhere, both with my career and the immediate needs of Libyan society and Libya as a country.”
Furthermore, he’s not yet ready to cut his ties with the country that’s made a profound impression on him as his home of the last 11 years – Wales.
“It’s fantastic. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
“I’ve travelled all over the world. I’ve been to the Far East, to the near East, the Middle East, South America and North America, and you can’t beat some of the scenes in West Wales.
“It’s a very, very, beautiful place and the people are fantastic – they’re amazing.
“They remind me very much of Arabs.
“They’re very close with a big community spirit in a lot of Wales.
“Perhaps not so much in Cardiff, because it’s the capital and has that big city mentality.
“But Wales is a place of people that love their families and care for their friends and have a community spirit, and that very much reminds me of home.
“Another reason that I’m attached to Wales is that it’s given me so much.
“Wales has spent so much money on me – training me and recruiting me and giving me opportunities that I may not have received elsewhere, including Libya.
“I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had in Wales in Libya.
“And I can now use these skills and experiences to help my country.
“But that doesn’t mean I’ll all of a sudden neglect Wales and what it’s given to me.”