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During her historic visit to Libya this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should press the Libyan government and leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi to release political prisoners, abolish laws that imprison peaceful critics, and end the use of torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

Rice is planning to visit Libya on September 5 as part of a North Africa tour. It will be the first visit by a US secretary of state to the country since 1953.

“Business concerns and counterterrorism cooperation are driving forces behind the US-Libya détente, but they should not come at the expense of human rights and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Scores of Libyans are still in prison – some of them disappeared – simply for expressing peaceful criticism of the government and its leaders.”

In a letter to Secretary Rice, Human Rights Watch urged her to raise human rights concerns at the highest levels. The United States should condition further developments in the US-Libya relationship on concrete efforts by Tripoli to enact needed reform, Human Rights Watch said.

In an updated background paper on Libya also released today, “Rights at Risk,” Human Rights Watch documents the main human rights violations in the country.

Of particular concern is the near-total ban on independent political activity. Libya’s Law 71 criminalizes any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution, which brought Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi to power in 1969. Article 3 of the law imposes the death penalty on those who form, join, or support such groups. Over the years, Libyan authorities have imprisoned hundreds of people for violating this law, and sentenced some to death.

The government severely restricts the media. Libyans depend on the internet and satellite television channels for uncensored news. Those who criticize the country’s political leaders or system face harsh penalties.

One well-known dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, has been in detention almost continuously since 2002 for criticizing al-Qadhafi and calling for a free press and free elections. For about one year the authorities kept al-Jahmi in detention in a psychiatric hospital, where he had no contact with family or lawyers, and was denied his proper medications. Al-Jahmi suffers from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

In March 2008, Human Rights Watch and a doctor from Physician for Human Rights (PHR) visited al-Jahmi at the state-run Tripoli Medical Center, where he was under guard. The PHR doctor was allowed to medically examine him in private. He determined that al-Jahmi is getting better treatment, but is considerably sicker than at the time of his most recent arrest in 2004. The authorities have still not permitted al-Jahmi to return home or obtain the medical care of his choosing, either in Libya or abroad.

In June 2008, a state security court sentenced 11 men to prison terms of six to 25 years for planning to hold a peaceful demonstration in Tripoli against police violence. The main organizer, Dr. Idris Boufayed, who received a sentence of 25 years, suffers from cancer. Another man arrested with the group, `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, remains missing, having not been accounted for in the 18 months since the group was detained in February 2007.

Both al-Jahmi and Boufayed were accused in their trials of unauthorized contact with a foreign government official. According to Human Rights Watch’s information, the official was a diplomat from the United States.

Torture of detainees is a serious concern in Libya. According to the US State Department’s 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, methods of torture in Libya included: clubbing, applying electric shock, breaking fingers, and suffocating with plastic bags.

In May 2008, the Swedish government returned Mohammed Adel Abu Ali to Libya after rejecting his asylum request. Libyan authorities detained him on arrival, and two weeks later they informed his family that he had died.

Secretary Rice should use her visit to encourage Libyan authorities “to end these abusive practices,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its letter. “By raising your concerns at the highest levels, you will show that respect for human rights stands at the core of U.S.-Libya relations, and that further development of the relationship depends on Libya bringing its human rights practices up to international standards,” the letter said.

Specifically, Human Rights Watch urged Secretary Rice to condition the deepening of ties on the release of all political prisoners – Fathi al-Jahmi, the Boufayed group, and others – and the abolition of all laws and regulations that sanction the punishment of peaceful political activity, such as Law 71 and various articles of the penal code.

The United States is interested in developing closer relations with Libya primarily to further develop business opportunities and counterterrorism cooperation. “We strongly urge you to use your upcoming visit to demonstrate that Washington will not pursue these objectives at the expense of human rights and the rule of law,” the letter said.

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