The Libyan Supreme Court’s reported decision on Sunday to retry 86 political prisoners is a hopeful sign of reform, Human Rights Watch said today. These Muslim Brotherhood members have served seven years in prison for nonviolent activities after being convicted by a now-closed tribunal that violated fair-trial standards under Libyan and international law.
“While the Libyan government had promised us that the political prisoners would be released unconditionally, their retrial is still a welcome step,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa director. “The Libyan authorities should now provide a prompt and fair trial with international observers.”
A senior Libyan official in May told Human Rights Watch that the government would release the jailed Muslim Brotherhood members. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, head of the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations and son of Muammar Gaddafi, has repeatedly said the government would free the men because they no longer posed a threat to society. The retrial appears to be a compromise among government officials who urged their release and those who demanded they stay.
The Muslim Brotherhood members are in prison for violating Law 71, which bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the 1969 revolution that brought Col. Muammar Qaddafi to power. Article 206 of the penal code authorizes the death penalty for those who call “for the establishment of any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law.”
The case began in June 1998, when Libyan security forces arrested 152 men, most of them academics and professionals. The Internal Security Agency held the men for more than two years in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers. Some said they were tortured.
The trial began in March 2001 before a special court for political cases known as the People’s Court, which the government closed in January. Eleven months later, the court sentenced 11 of the men to 10 years in prison and 73 of them to life. The two leaders of the brotherhood, Professors Abdullah Ahmed ‘Izzedin and Salem Abu Hanek, were sentenced to death. Sixty-six of the defendants were acquitted.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the two imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leaders in May. ‘Izzedin said the Muslim Brotherhood peacefully works to promote Islamic values in society and that it is “based on tolerance and moderation and it condemns violence in all forms.”
Libyan security officials view the Muslim Brotherhood as a breeding ground for terrorists. “They don’t call for direct violence,” head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, Col. Tohamy Khaled, told Human Rights Watch. “They spread an ideology until they’re ready, and the next step is using violence.” Their arrest was “a preemptive measure,” he said.
“We have no problem with the state,” ‘Izzedin told Human Rights Watch in Abu Selim prison, where the Muslim Brotherhood members are being held. “We call for reform for the benefit of society.” He added, “We respect the government, its institutions and laws—we want to work with them.”
Human Rights Watch called for the abolition of Law 71 and for the release of others imprisoned in Libya for peacefully expressing their political, social or religious views.
The announcement of a retrial comes amid a series of important developments for human rights in Libya. In January, Libyan authorities closed the People’s Court, the tribunal that had convicted the Muslim Brotherhood members, and transferred the cases it was then reviewing to regular criminal courts. Legal experts are preparing a new penal code and criminal procedure code which, Libyan officials said, will reduce the number of crimes punishable by death. Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch this spring, have been allowed to visit the country, although their research was largely monitored and controlled.
“Despite the positive signs from Libya, areas of serious concern remain,” Whitson said. “Only six months ago, we documented unfair trials, physical abuse in detention and restrictions on free expression and association.”
Human Rights Watch urged that the remaining prisoners convicted by the now-closed People’s Court—which perhaps includes hundreds of people—be exonerated or retried by the criminal courts. Libya’s new penal code must comply with international due process standards and abolish the death penalty completely, as is called for in the Great Green Charter for Human Rights, one of Libya’s fundamental constitutional laws. Until then, Libya should declare a moratorium on executions, Human Rights Watch said.
The organization also expressed concern about Libya’s most prominent political prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, arrested in March 2004 after he criticized Col. Qaddafi in the international media. According to his family, the government has forbidden them from visiting al-Jahmi for more then four months.