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The Libyan government’s pardoning today of 132 political prisoners is a hopeful sign of reform, Human Rights Watch said. Most of them had spent more than seven years in detention, imprisoned for nonviolent activities after unfair trials.

“The release of these long-time prisoners is a welcome step,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should now lift the restrictive laws they used to put them behind bars.”

The authorities released the men from Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison this morning – on a national holiday called “The Day of People’s Authority.” The government did not make a list of the prisoners’ names available, nor did it clarify how the pardon had come about.

The Qadhafi Foundation for Development, run by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, a son of the Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, had been urging the release of 131 prisoners for months, arguing that the men did not pose a security threat to the state. The Foundation confirmed to Human Rights Watch today that the released men were on its list, along with a journalist named `Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri.

“We support the efforts of those in Libya who have pushed for the prisoners’ release in the face of stiff resistance,” Whitson said.

According to the Foundation, 86 of the prisoners were members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, a political and social organization publicly committed to peaceful political change. A Libyan court had convicted the men in 2002 for violating Law 71, which bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the 1969 revolution that brought al-Qadhafi to power.

The journalist `Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri writes for a website based in Britain. Internal security agents arrested him in Libya in January 2005, and a court sentenced him to 18 months in prison for the illegal possession of a handgun. The authorities found the gun the day after al-Mansuri’s arrest and then held him in incommunicado detention for more than four months.

Others released today are either unaffiliated with any political group or were members of the Tajamu` al-Islami (Islamic Grouping). Unconfirmed reports from Libyan groups in Europe and the United States say the government required all the released prisoners to sign a pledge that they would not engage in any non-sanctioned political activity.

“It is wonderful that 132 political prisoners are free,” Whitson said. “The Libyan government should now allow these people to express their views and engage in peaceful political activity.”

According to sources close to the Libyan government, the authorities will assist the released prisoners to reintegrate into society. Such assistance should include compensation for their time in prison, Human Rights Watch said.

The case of the Muslim Brotherhood members began in June 1998, when the police arrested 152 men, most of them academics and professionals. Libyan authorities held the men for more than two years in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers. Some said they were tortured.

Their trial began in March 2001 before a special court for political cases known as the People’s Court, which the authorities abolished in January 2005. In February 2002, the court sentenced 11 of the men to 10 years in prison, and 73 of them to life. The court sentenced to death the two leaders of the Brotherhood, Professors Abdullah Ahmed `Izzedin and Salem Abu Hanek. It acquitted 66 defendants.

Human Rights Watch interviewed `Izzedin and Hanek in Abu Salim prison during a May 2005 mission to Libya. According to `Izzedin, the Muslim Brotherhood peacefully works to promote Islamic values in society. It is “based on tolerance and moderation and it condemns violence in all forms,” he said.

Libyan security officials viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a breeding ground for terrorists. “They don’t call for direct violence,” Colonel Tohamy Khaled, head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, 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. “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.”

On October 9, 2005, Libya’s Supreme Court granted the Brotherhood members a retrial, a case underway when the government announced today’s release.

One prominent political prisoner not released today was Fathi al-Jahmi, Human Rights Watch said. The Internal Security Agency has held al-Jahmi since March 2004, when he strongly criticized al-Qadhafi in interviews with international media.

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