Government Rejects Much-Needed Changes at First Human Rights Council Review
November 17, 2010
Why did Libyan authorities reject a recommendation to publish the list of Abu Salim Prison victims and give their families accurate death certificates? This shows a total disregard for the suffering of loved ones who have waited over 14 years for the truth and confirms that the government has little interest in signalling an end to impunity.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(London) - Libya's rejection of United Nations Human Rights Council proposals casts serious doubt on the government's professed commitment to reform, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. During its first review by the Human Rights Council on November 9, 2010, Libya accepted general recommendations to protect and promote human rights but dismissed recommendations regarding specific violations and concrete steps to remedy them.

During what is called the Universal Periodic Review, UN Human Rights Council member countries raised concerns regarding ongoing human rights violations in Libya. They pressed Libya to guarantee freedom of expression and association; address impunity for gross violations committed in the past; release people who were arbitrarily detained; adopt a framework to protect refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants; and abolish the death penalty.

"Libya contradicts its rhetorical endorsement of human rights by rejecting every proposal that would address specific human rights concerns," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy programme director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. "Nice words about freedom of expression are meaningless when the government rejects calls to amend penal code provisions that criminalize peaceful dissent."

Libya's refusal to consider amending those provisions came in the same week in which its Internal Security Agency (ISA) arbitrarily detained 20 journalists for three days. Security forces frequently harass journalists, and overly broad provisions of the penal code serve as the basis for frequent charges of criminal defamation when they exercise their right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

Libya also rejected a recommendation to investigate past cases of enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions, including the fate of 1,200 detainees killed in Abu Salim Prison in June 1996, although the government made a public commitment in September 2009, after years of refusing to even confirm their deaths, to investigate the episode.

"Why did Libyan authorities reject a recommendation to publish the list of Abu Salim Prison victims and give their families accurate death certificates," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This shows a total disregard for the suffering of loved ones who have waited over 14 years for the truth and confirms that the government has little interest in signalling an end to impunity."

Responding to recommendations to release all those detained arbitrarily, Libya claimed it had already done so. Scores of individuals have been released in the past two years. But at least 200 others remain detained after serving their sentences or being acquitted by courts. Justice Minister Mostafa Abdeljalil has publicly called for the release of these prisoners, but the ISA, which holds them, refuses to comply.

Others remain in prison after grossly unfair trials. Libya's refusal to eliminate or overhaul the State Security Court, whose proceedings lack basic fair trial guarantees, will perpetuate unfair trials for individuals accused of "offenses against the state," Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.

Even the Human Rights Society of the Gaddafi Development Foundation, headed by the Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, called in December 2009 "upon the Supreme Council of Judicial Authorities to make a decision to cancel the State Security Court, and call[ed] upon the Libyan legislator to abrogate all laws, provisions and powers contained in the Law of the People's Court and the People's Prosecution office." This call has been ignored.

Libya's pledge to the Human Rights Council to "take the necessary steps to ensure that security forces are subject to legal oversight," was a positive move, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. The unchecked powers of security agencies, particularly the ISA, has led to serious abuses in a total climate of impunity, the groups said.

The authorities should ensure that ISA officers can no longer arrest, detain, or interrogate suspects, and place all detention facilities, including Abu Salim and Ain Zara prisons, under the control of judicial authorities. Justice Minister Abdeljalil has said that he is unable to order an investigation into abuses by ISA officers because they have immunity. Only the Interior Ministry can waive immunity, but it has consistently refused to do so, he said.

At the Human Rights Council review, Libya maintained a hard-line position against recognizing any rights of refugees and refused to revise practices such as indefinite detention, torture or other ill-treatment, and arbitrary expulsions. The country has no asylum procedures. Despite previous promises to introduce such procedures, the Libyan government rejected recommendations to ratify the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and to sign a memorandum of understanding with the UN refugee agency, which it ordered closed in June 2010, although it later allowed it to continue processing resettlement cases.

"EU member states actively seek the cooperation of Libya to decrease the number of refugees reaching Europe from Africa, but they should not close their eyes to Libya's appalling treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants" Hadj Sahraoui said.

Several states called on Libya to establish a moratorium on the death penalty, which authorities continue to apply for a wide range of crimes, including those related to speech and association. While authorities signalled that they might commute all death sentences, they rejected Canada's recommendation to "amend or repeal legislation that applies the death penalty to non-serious crimes...including the exercise of the right to freedom of expression."

Libya refused this recommendation even though a 2008 draft penal code by a committee appointed by the Justice Ministry would restrict the death penalty to the crime of murder.

Member states pointed out that Libya, in particular because it is a member of the Human Rights Council, should be more open to international scrutiny of its human rights record and allow council experts to visit. Libyan authorities said that they would consider these recommendations when the Council adopts the Libya UPR report in March 2011.

The human rights records of all UN member countries are reviewed by the Human Rights Council once every four years.

As an immediate step to signal its commitment to cooperate with the Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch recommend that Libya:

  • Immediately schedule visits by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which have outstanding requests.
  • Extend an invitation to the UN special rapporteur on torture.
  • Allow unimpeded access to international independent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
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