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Libya has taken important steps to improve its human rights record over the past year, Human Rights Watch said today, following its first-ever visit to the country. But serious problems remain, including the use of violence against detainees, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and the incarceration of political prisoners.

During Human Rights Watch’s three-week mission to Libya, the authorities provided access to a wide range of high-level officials, as well as police stations, an immigration detention center, five prisons and more than two dozen prisoners, who were interviewed in private. Government guides, however, escorted Human Rights Watch researchers and controlled unauthorized contact with individuals.

“The Libyan government’s invitation reflected a welcome degree of transparency,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We’re looking forward to further human rights improvements in the country, as Libyan and international laws demand.”

In recent years, Libya has tried to improve its human rights image at home and abroad. Authorities have released political prisoners and have separated the ministries of justice and public security, to promote independence of the judiciary.

Last year, the government closed the People’s Court, an extraordinary court that tried political cases with inadequate due-process guarantees. The government is also reviewing the Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, with an eye to minimizing the number of crimes punishable by death. In addition, the authorities have established commissions to investigate the June 1996 riot in Abu Selim prison, in which an unknown number of prisoners died, and to probe the possible existence of political prisoners, although it is not clear what standards the commission will apply in its investigations.

At the same time, Libyan legislation still criminalizes free expression and association, and imposes the death penalty on those who criticize Col. Muammar Qaddafi or the 1969 revolution that brought him to power. Human Rights Watch interviewed two professors on death row, former leaders of the Muslim Brothers, who were convicted of organizing a clandestine group, even though they did not advocate or organize violent acts. Eighty-four other members of the Muslim Brothers are also in prison.

Despite the abolition of the People’s Court, problems continue in the administration of justice. Detainees have limited access to legal representation at the time of arrest, and security forces sometimes obtain confessions in police stations and internal security facilities through psychological and physical abuse.

Human Rights Watch researchers investigated these issues, as well as prison conditions, freedom of the press and the methods used in Libya’s anti-terrorism campaign. Specialized researchers focused on women’s rights and on the rights of migrants and refugees, although Libyan officials repeatedly denied the existence of refugees in the country.

Human Rights Watch will continue to follow these areas of concern, but highlighted the following issues for immediate release:

  • Political prisoners – Libya’s most well-known political prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, has been held for more than 13 months without trial at an internal security facility in Tripoli, where he was interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Fathi al-Jahmi, May 10, 2005, Tripoli
    Al-Jahmi was most recently arrested on March 26, 2004, after he gave interviews to international media criticizing Col. Qaddafi and calling for internal reform. He told Human Rights Watch that he faces charges on three counts: trying to overthrow the government, slandering Col. Qaddafi and contacting foreign authorities. The third charge, he said, is due to conversations he had with a U.S. diplomat in Tripoli.

    Human Rights Watch also interviewed writer and Internet columnist Abdul Rezak al-Mansouri, who had been held incommunicado by internal security since January 12 after writing articles critical of the Libyan government for the website According to a top security official, al-Mansouri has been charged with possession of an unlicensed pistol.

  • The People’s Court – Last year the Libyan authorities closed the extraordinary People’s Court, which had tried most political cases. The cases under review at the time of closure were transferred to regular criminal courts, justice officials said. Human Rights Watch welcomed the development but 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.
  • Abu Selim Prison – The chief of Libya’s internal security, Col. Tohamy Khaled, told Human Rights Watch that the government, on order of the Secretary of Justice, has opened a formal investigation into the events of June 1996 in Abu Selim Prison, when an unknown number of prisoners died in unclear circumstances. Some families of prisoners lost contact with their relatives after June 1996, and the government has not officially released information about the incident or the names of the dead.

    “When the committee concludes its work, because it has already started, we’ll give a detailed report answering all questions,” Khaled said. He told Human Rights Watch that the prisoners had captured some guards during a meal and taken weapons from the prison cache. He asserted that some prisoners and guards died as security tried to restore order, and that more than 400 prisoners escaped in four episodes.

    Two weeks ago, Pakistani security forces announced the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libi, the Libyan-born alleged chief of al-Qaeda’s operations. Khaled claimed that al-Libi was among the Abu Salim prisoners who had escaped. Many of the escapees fled to Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, he said, where they are fighting with various Islamic militant groups. Some have returned to Libya, he claimed, where they are using violence against the government.

  • Death Penalty and Penal Code – Libya’s Secretary of Justice, ‘Ali ‘Umar Abu Bakr, told Human Rights Watch about an ambitious plan to reform legislation to bring it into line with international human rights standards. A revised Penal Code will be presented to Libya’s Basic People’s Congresses for debate by the end of this year, he said. Under the new code, the death penalty “will be reduced to the greatest possible extent,” although it will remain for the “most dangerous crimes” and for “terrorism,” he said. Human Rights Watch called on the government to declare an immediate moratorium on executions. Bakr said there was a de facto freeze on executions until the new Penal Code came into effect, but two independent sources told Human Rights Watch that two Nigerians convicted of murder were put to death last month.

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