The Libyan government should drop charges against 12 men, one of them a Danish citizen, on trial for planning to hold a peaceful political demonstration in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Human Rights Watch said today. Two other men have “disappeared” since their arrest in connection with the case nearly six months ago.
“For all its promises of better behavior and improved ties with the world, Libya still imprisons those who express alternative political views, and it has ‘disappeared’ others,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Twelve men are potentially facing death sentences, and two are missing in custody, their whereabouts unknown.”
The two “disappeared” men are `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, a fourth-year medical student who, together with the 12 men on trial, was reportedly organizing the demonstration, and Jum`a Boufayed, brother of the demonstration’s main organizer, Dr. Idris Boufayed. Neither man has been seen since their arrests in mid-February, nor have the Libyan authorities provided information on their whereabouts.
Jum`a Boufayed was apparently not one of the demonstration planners. Security agents arrested him a few hours after he gave an interview to a Libyan website based abroad, www.libya-almostakbal.net, about his brother Idris’ arrest.
Security agents arrested the demonstration organizers on February 15 and 16, 2007. They had announced plans to hold a peaceful demonstration in Tripoli on February 17 to commemorate the first anniversary of a violent clash between demonstrators and police in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.
On February 17, 2006, demonstrators attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi in response to statements by an Italian government minister defending the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that had appeared in Danish and other European newspapers. The police used force to disperse the crowd, killing at least 11.
The 12 men are on trial for planning to overthrow the government, possession of arms, and meeting with an official from a foreign government.
Three open court sessions have taken place with family members in attendance. The fourth session on August 4 was postponed. The defendants have denied the first two charges, but admit that some of them met an official from the US embassy to inform him of their plans.
Despite Libyan pledges to abolish the death penalty, some or all of the defendants could face execution. Article 206 of the Libyan penal code imposes the death penalty on those who call “for the establishment of any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law,” and on those who belong to or support such an organization.
Article 166 imposes the death penalty on anyone who talks to or conspires with a foreign official to provoke or contribute to an attack against Libya.
Article 167 imposes up to life in prison for conspiring with a foreign official to harm Libya’s military, political or diplomatic position.
It is not clear whether `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, apparently one of the organizers, faces the same charges, even though he has never been produced in court. The charges against Dr. Boufayed’s brother Jum`a are also unclear.
To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, none of the 14 men have called for or advocated violence. The demonstration’s main organizer, Dr. Idris Boufayed, 50, is an outspoken critic of Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi and runs a small exile group called the National Union for Reform. Security agents detained him for 55 days on a previous occasion in November-December 2006, after he wrote critical letters published on a Libyan opposition website.
After 16 years in exile in Switzerland, Boufayed had returned to Libya for a visit in September 2006. In recent years, al-Qadhafi and top government officials have publicly promised that government critics could safely return.
Another of the defendants, Jamal Ahmad al-Haji, is a recognized writer and government critic. In an article he wrote a few days before his arrest, he called for “freedom, democracy, a constitutional state, and law.”
Jamal al-Haji holds Danish citizenship, which the Libyan government has refused to recognize. The authorities have refused Danish government requests to visit al-Haji, although such visits are allowed under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Some of the detainees reportedly suffer from medical ailments. Ahmad Yusif al-`Ubaidi has serious problems with his legs and Al-Sadiq Salih Humaid needs psychological care.
On July 30, Human Rights Watch wrote the Libyan government to inquire about the 14 men, including the charges against them and the locations of `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi and Jum`a Boufayed. As of August 13, the Libyan government had not replied.
In a media interview on August 2, the son of Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, who runs the influential Qadhafi Foundation for Development, said the men had possessed arms and ammunition. “Idris Boufayed and his people are terrorists,” he told the BBC. “And you will see with your own eyes in the trial that he’s a terrorist.”
According to Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi: “We got all the emails, his [Boufayed’s] emails, saying that we have to communicate with other people abroad. That we have to go to the Green Square and we have to provoke the policemen and to let them shoot at us and then we create another problem in Libya and we can manipulate it and use it against the regime, and so on.”
From the interview, it remains unclear who obtained Dr. Boufayed’s alleged emails.
The trial of the 12 men follows the release last month of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor convicted of infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. They spent eight years in prison in a case marred by torture and unfair proceedings.
Shortly after their release on July 24, Libya purchased anti-tank missiles and communications systems worth more than $400 million from a company jointly controlled by French and German interests. The European Commission said it will negotiate an agreement with Libya that paves the way for renewed partnership and cooperation.
“Governments and businesses should not embrace Libya just because it released people from prison who should not have been there in the first place,” Whitson said. “Meanwhile these 12 men – one a European citizen – remain unjustly behind bars, while two remain completely unaccounted for.”
The arrested men are:
1. Al-Mahdi Humaid
2. Al-Sadiq Salih Humaid
3. Faraj Humaid
4. `Adil Humaid
5. `Ali Humaid (five brothers)
6. Ahmad Yusif al-`Ubaidi
7. `Ala' al-Dirsi
8. Jamal al-Haji
9. Dr. Idris Boufayed
10. Farid al-Zuwi
11. Bashir al-Haris
12. Al-Sadiq Qashut
13. `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi
14. Jum`a Boufayed (brother of Dr. Idris Boufayed)