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A Libyan court has sentenced an Internet journalist to one-and-a-half years in prison after he published articles critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence is an apparent attempt by the government to silence free speech and dissenting views.

After more than four months of incommunicado detention, a court in Tripoli on October 19 convicted the journalist, `Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri, on charges of illegally possessing a handgun.

“The gun charges are a ruse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities went after al-Mansuri because they did not like what he wrote.”

On October 27, al-Mansuri’s family in Libya wrote a letter to the Libyan government and local and international media and human rights organizations boldly denouncing the arrest and sentence. Such outspoken criticism is rare in Libya.

The letter said, “we the writer, `Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri’s family, will continue our son’s march, for he always wanted for everyone to eliminate fear. If he could not affect the people closest to him, his family, how could he affect others?”

On January 12, the government arrested al-Mansuri, 52, in his hometown of Tobruk. Over the previous year, he had written some 50 articles and commentaries critical of Libyan society and government for a U.K.-based website,

Because the Libyan government strictly controls the media, the Internet has become an important source of independent news for Libyans. Dozens of websites based abroad provide a forum for open debate.

Human Rights Watch visited al-Mansuri on May 5 in Tripoli’s Abu Selim prison. He said then that the Internal Security Agency agents who arrested him had confiscated his computer, papers, floppy and compact discs.

At the Internal Security Agency’s headquarters in Tobruk, al-Mansuri was questioned about articles he had written, he said. They searched his home the next day, and found an old pistol that belonged to his father. In May, he told Human Rights Watch that he was still unaware of any formal charges against him, and he had not had contact with a lawyer or his family. The Libyan authorities have not responded to Human Rights Watch requests for additional information about the case.

Col. Tuhami Khaled, head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, which deals with political and security crimes, told Human Rights Watch in May that he was responsible for al-Mansuri’s arrest. “This man was not arrested for an article, or the Internet, or the radio,” Col. Khaled said. “He was arrested because he had a gun without a license.”

The Internal Security Agency was holding al-Mansuri instead of the police, he said, because a weapon is “a job for internal security.”

The letter from al-Mansuri’s family insists that his arrest resulted from his journalistic work. A brother who spoke with security agents said they told him that al-Mansuri had confessed to his crime, “writing articles online that criticized the state of Libya.”

The agents found the old pistol, the family said, during a second search of the home that took place after al-Mansuri’s arrest. His family had no contact with him until he called them on May 28, the day the Internal Security Agency transferred him to the custody of the public prosecutor.

The trial began in late summer, the family said, but was twice postponed. First, al-Mansuri’s lawyer asked for an extension to prepare a defense. Then, the court postponed the trial because al-Mansuri was hospitalized for a broken pelvis he sustained after falling from his top bunk in prison.

On October 19, a Tripoli court sentenced al-Mansuri to one-and-a-half years in prison. According to the family, the court refused to give him credit for the four months of incommunicado detention by the Internal Security Agency.

His family said Libyan authorities have asked them to denounce al-Mansuri as mentally deranged. “If defending the right to free speech and asking for basic human rights is insane in our country, then welcome to a family that is, from its oldest to its youngest, insane,” their letter said.

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