December 12, 2009

VII. Violations by the Internal Security Agency

“What I want is to know what happened to my father. If he is alive, I wish to speak with him and see him. If he has broken the law, he ought to be tried and given a chance to defend himself. And if he is dead, then I want to know how, where and when it happened. I want a date, a detailed account and the location of his body.”[93]
—Hisham Matar, July 2006

The structure, mandate and reporting lines of Libya’s various security agencies remain opaque, primarily because these institutions have a great deal of informal political power, and function  without accountability or transparency. The Internal Security Agency and External Security Agency are formally under the authority of the General People’s Committee for Public Security.

The only publicly available statistics on Libya’s prison population date from June 2007 and indicate there were 12,748 prisoners distributed among 36 institutions.[94] These prisons fall under the jurisdiction of the General People’s Committee for Justice. However, the two most notorious prisons, Abu Salim and Ain Zara, known for housing political prisoners for years without trial, do not fall under the jurisdiction of the General People’s Committee for Justice but under the Internal Security Agency.[95]

Since the authorities refuse to disclose any information, little is known about the prison populations of Abu Salim and Ain Zara. The only information comes from former prisoners who often are too intimidated to discuss their experiences. During its April 2009 trip to Libya, Human Rights Watch visited Abu Salim prison in Tripoli and was given a tour of the prison clinic.[96] When Human Rights Watch met with the Deputy Director of Internal Security in charge of the prison, and asked him about the prison population, he responded that he “did not know” how many prisoners were in Abu Salim because “it changed on a daily basis.”[97] When Human Rights Watch followed up by asking how many meals were prepared daily, he responded “we always make extra meals so that there is more than enough.”[98] His response is typical of the lack of transparency surrounding the Internal Security Agency.

Libyan prisons still contain hundreds of political prisoners who have not engaged in violent acts or advocated violence. Many of those imprisoned in Abu Salim belong to Islamist groups. Although some have advocated violence, many have not and none have received fair trials. Over the past two years, Libyan authorities have released 238 prisoners, 40 in March and most recently 88 in October. Overall, 136 of these prisoners were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, imprisoned after trials before the People’s Court or the State Security Court without due process for “membership in an illegal organization.” (see Section X.)

Arbitrary Detention   

Hundreds of prisoners are detained by the Internal Security Agency without any legal basis. Over the past few years, an unprecedented confrontation between the General People’s Committee for Justice and the General People’s Committee for Public Security has developed over the failure of Internal Security to implement the decisions of Libyan courts.  The Internal Security Agency continues to refuse to release from Abu Salim and Ain Zara prisons, prisoners who either have been acquitted by courts or who have already served their court- imposed sentences. Libyan Secretary of Justice Mostafa Abdeljalil confirmed to Human Rights Watch that “at least 200” prisoners who either had been acquitted or had served their sentences remain in Abu Salim and Ain Zara. [99] On November 2, 2009, in an interview with Oea, Secretary for Justice Mostafa Abdeljelil said that there were “more than 500 prisoners who were acquitted by courts in June 2008 and are yet to be released” and criticized the security services for failing to respect court decisions.[100]

Secretary Abdeljalil told Human Rights Watch “these prisons are affiliated to Internal Security and the Ministry of Justice has no jurisdiction over them. The General Prosecutor’s office has ordered their release but this has not occurred ... the General Prosecutor cannot initiate an investigation into their continued detention.”[101]  The head of the Internal Security Agency, Al-Tohamy Khaled, denied that there are any such prisoners. He told Human Rights Watch that the acquittal decisions issued in favor of some prisoners were now being appealed before the High Court. He said prisoners who had served their sentences remained imprisoned because the prosecutor had brought new charges against them.[102]

Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy of a leaked letter written by the Secretary of Justice on June 26, 2008, addressed to the General Secretary (Prime Minister), which was also published on various Libyan websites. The letter stated that 130 of the group of 189 defendants in the case of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, criminal case No. 120 of 1998, all of whom had been imprisoned since 1995, should be released:

The court ruled on June 16, 2008 to sentence 19 of them to death by firing squad, 50 of them to life imprisonment, 15 others to sentences ranging between 10 and 15 years and acquitting 130 defendants of all charges. On this basis the State Security Prosecutor ordered the release of all those defendants found innocent and those who had already served the period of their sentence, but Internal Security has not implemented this decision to this day.[103]

This publicized stance by the Secretary of Justice seems to have emboldened relatives of prisoners to publicly call for their release. On June 14, 2009, an Al Jazeera article quoted Saleh al Bakkoush, father of prisoner Anis Al Bakkoush, [104] calling for the release of his son, imprisoned since 1999 and subsequently acquitted of all charges by a court, who remains in Ain Zara prison. Another family member told Human Rights Watch “my brother was found innocent in 2005 by the Tripoli specialized court but he is still in Abu Salim. We keep hoping he will be released.”[105]

Below are some examples of prisoners who are arbitrarily detained about whose cases Human Rights Watch was able to obtain information. Given the lack of transparency and secrecy of the system, it is extremely difficult to get detailed information about individual cases.

Mahmoud Boushima

Mahmoud Boushima, a Libyan national born in 1962, returned to Libya on July 17, 2005 after receiving assurances from the Gaddafi Foundation that Libyan security officals would not arrest him upon his return.  He had been living in the United Kingdom with his family since 1981 and held a UK passport. On July 28, 2005, Internal Security forces arrested and imprisoned him in Abu Salim.  The State Security Prosecutor then charged him with membership in an illegal organization, in this case the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, under Article 206 of the penal code and Articles 2,3 and 4 of Law 71. On March 18, 2006 the specialized court of appeal (Mahkama Takhasusiyya) acquitted him in case No. 411/2005. The Prosecutor appealed this decision on April 22, 2006 and on February 20, 2007, the court ruled again in Boushima’s favour.  His case eventually came before the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favour on March 30, 2008. He remains in Abu Salim prison.

His brother, who is based in Europe, told Human Rights Watch that Boushima is in poor health, suffering from asthma, Hepatitis B and depression. For eleven months, the family was refused permission to visit him. Between December 2006 and October 2007 guards turned them away at the gates of the prison without explanation.

Abdellatif Al-Raqoubi

Internal Security officers arrested Abdellatif al-Raqoubi, born 1975,on June 19, 2006 in Sabha while on his way to work. His family says they had no news of him or where he was detained for nearly a year. In May 2007, local authorities informed them that he had been arrested by the Heresy-Fighters (zandaqa ), the security branch dealing with suspected Islamists, and that he was in Abu Salim prison.

Al-Raqoubi first appeared before a court on May 15, 2007, on charges of insulting Leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi and possession of weapons. The evidence against al-Raqoubi was the confessions of two other defendants who later told the judge that they had signed them under torture. On June 18, 2008, the State Security Court acquitted him along with 19 others in Case No. 314.  The Internal Security Agency released al-Raqoubi from Abu Salim prison on October 15, 2009.

The continued detention of these prisoners is a violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR which states that “no one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law”, as well as Article 6 of the African Charter. The failure to release also violates Article 434 of the Libyan Penal code on the deprivation of liberty.

The continued detention of these prisoners in the absence of a court order authorizing it constitutes arbitrary detention and amounts to a violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR. It is also a violation of article 434 of the Libyan Penal code on deprivation of liberty.

Political Prisoners

“We don’t have any prisoners of conscience, we only have terrorists.”
—Head of Internal Security Col. Al-Tohamy Khaled, April 25, 2009

Libyan prisons still contain hundreds of prisoners, sentenced after unfair trials, for expression of their political views. Libya’s penal code and Law 71 criminalize activities protected by freedom of expression and freedom of association under international law. Earlier this year, Libya released the last of a group of 14 prisoners arrested for organizing a demonstration.[106]   Human Rights Watch has written to the Libyan authorities to ask how many individuals remain imprisoned as a result of these provisions but at the time of publication has yet to receive a response. Because of the general lack of transparency surrounding the prisons controlled by the Internal Security Agency and the practice of incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance, it is impossible to assess how many political prisoners remain imprisoned in Libya. Two cases described below are typical of the policy of the Libyan authorities towards any expression of dissent.  The case of Fathi al-Jahmi, one of the most prominent political prisoners, is addressed below and shows the inherent cruelty in the continued detention of such prisoners.

Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi

“I was imprisoned because of matters the Leader now says himself, criticizing the situation in my country. He now criticizes corruption and the economic situation.  So I don’t know why I was imprisoned. I did not carry a gun, I carried a pen.”

Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi, 43, was a social security worker in Bani Walid, who also wrote on a freelance basis.    One day he sent the Arab Times, a US-based newspaper, a short story, entitled  Chaos, Corruption and the Suicide of the Mind in Libya (Al Fawda Al Fawda, Al Fasad Al Fasad, wa Entihar Al Aql fi Libya maa Qeyam Okhra),  a play on the words of the title of a piece written by Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. On January 3, 2003, Internal Security officers in plainclothes arrested him at his home and detained him incommunicado for six months.

Human Rights Watch interviewed al-Rabbasi in Abu Salim prison on April 27, 2009. Despite the fact that a guard kept eavesdropping on the interview, al-Rabbasi bravely told Human Rights Watch his story:

I was writing about corruption and human rights.  I wrote about economic corruption in a novel.  On the 18th of August 2003 I was sentenced to 15 years.  I might just as well have carried a gun or blown myself up with explosives. I had no lawyer, nothing of that sort. I don’t have anything to hide. I’m not part of any group or anything like that.  All I had at home were some papers.  I have no objection to you publicizing these events.  I have nothing to lose.

Al Karama, a Geneva-based human rights organization, submitted his case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which in 2005 found that “the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Abdenacer [sic.] Younes Meftah Al Rabassi is arbitrary, being in contravention of articles 14 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”[107]

On July 28, 2003, the People’s Court, a court notorious for politically-motivated trials, sentenced al-Rabbasi to 15 years imprisonment for “dishonoring the guide of the revolution” (Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi), under article 164 of the penal code. The General People’s Congress abolished the People’s Court on January 12, 2005 and Libyan justice officials said that cases under review at the time were transferred to regular criminal courts.[108]  Human Rights Watch has called on the government to retry all cases judged in the People’s Court due to systematic due-process violations in the court, such as long periods of pre-trial detention and limited access to a lawyer.[109] As of September 2009, no court has reviewed Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi’s case.

Mahmud Matar

Security officials arrested Mahmud Matar, along with his two nephews Saleh and Ali Abdel Salam Eshnaqet, in March 1990 and detained them in Abu Salim prison. For the first two years, prison authorities detained Matar in isolated confinement. More than 11 years after his arrest, the People’s Prosecutor charged him and nine others under Law 71 with membership in an illegal organization whose principles are against the Fateh revolution and with the possession of weapons under the penal code. On February 5, 2002, the Permanent Military Court sentenced Matar along with Saleh and Ali Ashneqat and Hamed Said Khanfoor to life imprisonment, acquitted one, and the remaining five were given terms between 10-12 years. The trial was marred by a number of procedural irregularities. During the trial, defense lawyers argued that the confessions presented as evidence had been extracted under torture and should be dismissed. In addition, defendants’ access to their lawyers was severely restricted.

Mahmud Matar is still imprisoned in Abu Salim prison. He has diabetes, high blood pressure, advanced cataract and for the past five months an inflamed prostate, but the Abu Salim prison authorities have not allowed him to see a doctor despite repeated requests.

Fathi al-Jahmi

On May 20, 2009, Libya’s most prominent dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, died in a Jordanian hospital after six and a half years in detention. He remained detained in Libya, under the control of the Internal Security Agency, up until two weeks before his death.

 Internal security forces arrested al-Jahmi, an engineer and former provincial governor, on October 19, 2002, after he criticized the government and the Libyan leader, Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi, regarding free elections in Libya, a free press, and the release of political prisoners. A court sentenced him to five years in prison under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government; insulting al-Gaddafi; and contacting foreign authorities. On March 10, 2004, an appeals court gave al-Jahmi a suspended sentence of one year and ordered his release on March 12. That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the US-funded al-Hurra television, in which he repeated his call for Libya's democratization. He gave another interview to the station four days later, in which he called al-Gaddafi a dictator and said, "All that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him." Two weeks later, on March 26, 2004, security agents arrested al-Jahmi a second time, and held him at a special facility on the coast near Tripoli. 

Human Rights Watch visited al-Jahmi in May 2005 at the special facility in Tripoli. He said then that he faced charges on three counts under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government; insulting al-Gaddafi; and contacting foreign authorities. The third charge, he said, resulted from conversations he had had with a US diplomat in Tripoli. In September 2006, a court consigned al-Jahmi to a psychiatric hospital, saying he was ‘mentally unfit.' During the roughly one year al-Jahmi spent at the psychiatric hospital, his health significantly declined, forcing his transfer to the Tripoli Medical Center in July 2007.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited al-Jahmi in the Tripoli Medical Center on April 25 and 26, 2009. The delegation noted a serious deterioration in his condition since Human Rights Watch last saw him in March 2008 in the Tripoli Medical Center: he appeared frail and emaciated, could barely speak, and could not lift his arms or head. When the researchers asked him if he was free to leave, he said, "No." When they asked him if he wanted to go home, he said, "Yes."  Instead, Fathi al-Jahmi, 68, slipped into a coma on May 3 and was flown to the Amman Medical Center two days later, accompanied by his son. He underwent surgery on May 7 and died of unknown causes 13 days later. On May 21, 2009, his son arranged for his body to be flown back to Libya, where his family buried him.

Libyan officials had announced in March 2008 that al-Jahmi had been freed and could leave the hospital at any time but Human Rights Watch assesses that he was detained the entire time he was in the Tripoli Medical Center. When Human Rights Watch researchers visited him in March 2008, they noted the presence of guards outside his hospital room and that he and his family could not freely make decisions about his medical care, due to real or perceived pressure from the government. In April 2009, four men in plain clothes were in the room next door; al-Jahmi said they were usually stationed there. Security officers controlled access to visitors.  The Libyan authorities therefore bore full responsibility for his well-being.

Human Rights Watch repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of al-Jahmi, as a political prisoner imprisoned for the peaceful expression of his opinion. Even though al-Jahmi did not die in detention, his imprisonment contributed to the deterioration in his health.


“Internal Security is a sword hanging over the necks of the people of Libya. I only want the truth.”[110]  
—Libyan relative of prisoner.

The practice of enforced disappearance by Internal Security continues in Libya. Over the past decades, Internal Security agents have regularly detained individuals incommunicado in prisons or in Internal Security offices.  Libyan groups estimate that Libyan security officials have disappeared thousands of individuals over the past three decades.[111] Hundreds of those disappearance cases have been officially acknowledged this year in the context of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre discussion in Section IX below. Many others, however, have not been addressed and the families of the disappeared continue to suffer in ignorance.

It is common for security officials to detain those arrested at undisclosed locations without access to their families or to a lawyer, even if they are subsequently released after a few months. Many, however, are detained for several years and some for over a decade. For example, Mohamed Milad El Seheili told Human Rights Watch how Libyan security forces came to the family home on the night of November 18, 1998 and arrested him. They also arrested his two brothers Omar and Boubakr, who were in different apartments at the time. Mohamed Milad Al Seheili told Human Rights Watch that he was never charged or told why they arrested him. He was released in March 1999. To this day, however, Mohamed and his family have been unable to obtain any information about his two brothers and do not know where they are or what has become of them.[112]

The following are some of the most high-profile disappearance cases which remain unresolved:

Jaballa Hamed Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef

Prominent Libyan opposition members Jaballa Hamed Matar and Izzat al-Megaryefdisappeared in Cairo on March 13, 1990. Both members of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, they had sought refuge in Cairo from Gaddafi’s policy of targeted assassinations of those who declared their opposition to him. 

Hisham Matar told Human Rights Watch that for two years after his father’s disappearance in Cairo in March 1990, Egyptian security told the family that Jaballa Hamed Matar was in Egypt. In 1993 however, a friend of his father’s brought the family in Cairo a letter in his father’s handwriting. The letter was dated 1992 and confirmed that Jaballa Hamed Matar was imprisoned in Abu Salim prison and that Egyptian security officials had handed him over to Libyan security in March 1990. A second letter dated 1995 reached the family in 1996. In 2002, a prisoner who had just arrived at Abu Salim prison, sent a message to Matar’s family, stating that he had seen Jaballa Hamed Matar in a high-security prison in Tripoli that year.[113]

The Matar family has never received a response from Libyan officials on the whereabouts of his father, despite letters over the years requesting information. In an autobiographical essay for The Independent, Hisham Matar wrote “Life attempts to teach us about loss: that one can still find peace in the finality of death. And yet, my loss gives no peace. My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete.”[114]

Youcif al-Megaryef, the son of Izzat al-Megaryef who now lives in the United States, told Human Rights Watch that “on March 13, 1990 Egyptian Intelligence officer Colonel Mohamad Hassan came to our home requesting my dad to accompany him for a routine meeting. My father left with him, never to be seen again.”[115] The family later received letters written in 1993 and an audio recording from Izzat saying that Egyptian security officers had interrogated him and then handed him over to Libyan intelligence on March 14, 1990. Libyan security officials took Izzat al-Megaryef along with Jaballa Matar and imprisoned them in Abu Salim prison. Former Abu Salim prisoners told al-Megaryef’s family that they had communicated with Izzat al-Megaryef. The last news the family received of him was in April 1996. The Libyan authorities have never responded to the family’s enquiries about Izzat al-Megaryef’s whereabouts.

Mansur al-Kikhya

On 10 December 1993, Libyan opposition Mansur al-Kikhya was in Cairo for a meeting of the Arab Organization for Human Rights of which he was a board member.  On that day he disappeared in Cairo and his friends believe that Egyptian security officials handed him over to Libyan security.  A former Libyan representative to the United Nations and subsequent foreign minister in the 1970s, al-Kikhya left Libya in 1980 to join the Libyan opposition abroad.  In February 2009, Libyan website Al Manara reported that the North Benghazi Court held the first session in a case brought by al-Kikhya’s family to address issues of inheritance and paperwork.  This would be the first time a Libyan court addresses the disappearance of high-profile dissidents.

Imam Sayyed Musa Sadr

One of the most prominent of the disappearance cases is that of Lebanese Shii cleric Imam Sayyed Musa Sadr. On August 25, 1978, Imam Sadr arrived in Libya accompanied by Sheikh Mohamad Yacoub and journalist Abbas Badreddine for a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi. On August 31, the three set out from their hotel in Tripoli for the meeting and that was the last time they were seen. Colonel Gaddafi denied that the meeting ever took place and the Libyan authorities said that the three had left Libya for Rome. Libya later refused to meet a panel of investigators.

Death in Custody

Ismail Ibrahim Al Khazmi

Internal Security agents arrested Ismail Ibrahim Al Khazmi, born 1976, from his home in June 2006.  Despite many attempts, his family was unable to obtain news of his whereabouts and al-Khazmi was disappeared. In 2006 Al-Khazmi died under torture. On May 1, 2007 his family received a medical report which said he had died of kidney failure.  In mid-March 2009 they asked his family to take the body to bury it but the father refused, saying that he wants an autopsy and a proper investigation into his son’s death.[116]

Under Article 2(3), Libya has a duty to investigate and prosecute all violations that amount to crimes, such as those against the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person and the right to recognition before the law, which is violated in the case of an enforced disappearance.  UN Human Rights Committee General Comment 31 says that failure of a state party to investigate can itself give rise to a separate breach of the Covenant.[117] In addition, the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions state that “there shall be thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death in the above circumstances.”[118] Libya is further required to take measures to prevent similar violations in the future.


[93]Hisham Matar, “I Just Want to Know What Happened to My Father,” The Independent, 16 July 2006, (accessed October 6, 2009).

[94] International Centre for Prison Studies (King’s College, London),  “World Prison Brief: Libya,” modified Sept. 2009, (accessed Sept. 30, 2009).

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Counselor Mostafa Abdeljalil, Secretary of Justice, Tripoli, April 26, 2009

[96] See Section II- Methodology section on how Human Rights Watch gained access.

[97] Human Rights Watch Interview with Deputy Director of the Internal Security Agency, Tripoli, April 27, 2009.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Counselor Mostafa Abdeljalil, Secretary of Justice, Tripoli, April 26, 2009.

[100] “ Oea meets Secretary for Justice Mostafa Abdeljalil for a Very Frank Interview,” Oea, November 2, 2009, (accessed November 3,2009).

[101] Human Rights Watch Interview with Deputy Director of the Internal Security Agency, Tripoli, April 27, 2009.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Al-Tohamy Khaled, head of Internal Security, Tripoli, April 25th 2009.

[103] Letter from Secretary of Justice to the Secretary of the General  People’s Committee, June 26, 2008.

[104] “Libyan Security Detains Prisoners acquitted by Judiciary,” Al Jazeera, June 14, 2009, (accessed June 26, 2009).

[105] Human Rights Watch interview with M.O., London, June 29, 2009.

[106] See Section X - The State Security Court for a discussion of their case. Human Rights Watch, “Two Prisoners Freed,” March 10, 2009, (accessed August 23, 2009).

[107]Abdenacer [sic.] Younes Meftah Al Rabassi v. Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2006/7/Add.1 at 76, May 10, 2005.

[108] For more on the People’s Court see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Libya  - Words to Deeds, Volume 18, No.1(E), January 2006,, Chapter V.

[109] “Reforms Welcome, But Concerns Remain,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 23, 2005. See also, “Libya: Abolition of People’s Court is an Important Step,” Amnesty International , Public Statement, January 13, 2005.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with M.I., Tripoli, April 25, 2009

[111] See National Front for the Salvation of Libya, Human Rights Report, December 1998, (accessed November 7, 2009).

[112] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Mohamed Milad Al Seheili, May 26, 2009

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Hisham Matar, London, June 19, 2009.

[114]  Hisham Matar, “I Just Want to Know What Happened to My Father,” The Independent, 16 July 2006, (accessed October 6, 2009).

[115] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Youcif Almegaryef, November 5, 2009.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with K.I., April 5, 2009

[117] UN Human Rights Committee , General Comment No. 31,  Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on State Parties to the Covenant (2187th meeting, May 26, 2004), UN Doc. CCPR/C/Rev.1/Add.13, (accessed Sept. 30, 2009).

[118]  UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions.