Despite some improvements in recent years, Libyan citizens still suffer serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today ahead of a visit to the United States by Libya’s foreign minister. Human Rights Watch cited the absence of a free press, the ban on independent organizations, the torture of detainees, and the continued incarceration of political prisoners.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelrahman Shalgam is meeting his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, in Washington on January 3, 2008. Relations between the United States and oil-rich Libya have warmed, centering on business ties and counterterrorism, since Libya renounced terrorism and its weapons of mass destruction programs. The countries resumed full diplomatic relations in 2006 after a 27-year hiatus.
“We welcome improved relations between Libya and the US, but not at the expense of political prisoners, torture victims, and other Libyans who suffer abuse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa director. “The relationship may be driven by oil contracts and counterterrorism efforts, but it should include serious talk on improving human rights and the rule of law.”
Human Rights Watch has documented three cases of political prisoners who have been “disappeared” in the past 18 months. Their cases and other human rights violations are detailed in a briefing paper released by Human Rights Watch today, “Libya: Rights at Risk."
One section of the paper documents the continued detention without charge of two Libyan men returned to Libya by the US government from Guantanamo Bay. The United States, acting in part on Libyan promises of humane treatment, sent Muhammad Abdallah Mansur al-Rimi to Libya in December 2006, followed by Sofian Ibrahim Hamad Hamoodah in September 2007.
The Libyan government has failed to provide Human Rights Watch with information about either man, despite repeated requests. The State Department said it visited them both on December 25 at a facility of the Libyan security forces, in the presence of Libyan officials and an official from the Qadhafi Development Foundation, a quasi-government organization run by Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Both men were in detention facing unknown charges, but said they had not been physically abused, the State Department said.
Apparently neither man had seen a lawyer. Al-Rimi’s family is outside of Libya, the State Department said, but Hamoodah’s family was due to visit him for the first time on December 27.
A January 2 statement by the Qadhafi Development Foundation said the foundation had visited al-Rimi and Hamoodah, and that Hamoodah’s family had subsequently been allowed a visit.
Human Rights Watch has not had access to either man, and could not confirm the State Department’s or Qadhafi Development Foundation’s claims. The lack of access is in and of itself a source of concern, Whitson said.
According to the State Department’s 2006 human rights report on Libya, reports of “torture, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention remained problems.” Methods of torture included:
“chaining prisoners to a wall for hours, clubbing, applying electric shock, applying corkscrews to the back, pouring lemon juice in open wounds, breaking fingers and allowing the joints to heal without medical care, suffocating with plastic bags, prolonged deprivations of sleep, food, and water, hanging by the wrists, suspension from a pole inserted between the knees and elbows, cigarette burns, threats of dog attacks, and beatings on the soles of the feet.”
Human Rights Watch also documented allegations of torture in its 2006 report on Libya, “Words to Deeds: The Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform." Fifteen of 32 prisoners interviewed in Libyan prisons by Human Rights Watch reported having been tortured during interrogations by security personnel in recent years.
Human Rights Watch’s research on diplomatic assurances of humane treatment, which governments seek when returning people to countries where detainees are routinely mistreated, indicates that such promises provide an ineffective safeguard against abuse.
“The US returned Guantanamo detainees to Libya based on promises of humane treatment from a government that Washington accuses of torture,” Whitson said. “Occasional visits by US officials can’t ensure that the detainees aren’t abused.”
Three political prisoners have “disappeared” in Libya over the past 18 months, Human Rights Watch said in the briefing paper. The Libyan government arrested two of the men in February 2007 as part of a larger group, after the men planned a peaceful demonstration in Tripoli, commemorating the anniversary of a lethal police crackdown in 2006. Twelve members of the group are on trial and could face the death penalty for allegedly planning to overthrow the government, arms possession, and meeting with a foreign official. But two others – `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi and Jum`a Boufayed – have been missing since their arrests.
The third missing prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, has been in detention since March 2004, when he gave interviews to international media criticizing the Libyan leader, Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi. His trial began in late 2005, but abruptly stopped, with the government providing no information or announcing the charges against him. According to al-Jahmi’s family, the government has denied them visits since August 2006 and they do not know if he is alive or dead.
Repeated requests to the Libyan government for information about the three missing men went unanswered.
“The US shouldn’t help a small group of Libyan officials to benefit from better business ties while most Libyans suffer from corruption and abuse,” Whitson said. “Improving human rights should come before oil deals.”
On January 1, Libya became a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and it assumed the rotating presidency for the coming month.