(Tripoli) - Limited improvements are under way in Libya, including expanded freedom of expression and proposed reform of the penal code, but repressive laws continue to stifle speech and abuses by the Internal Security Agency remain the norm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Human Rights Watch will hold a public news conference in the country today, a first for Libya, promising public debate on sensitive issues. The arrest of prominent critic Jamal el Haji on December 7, 2009, however, reflects the very real limits on internal criticism.
"A public assessment of Libya's human rights record in Tripoli would have been unthinkable a few years ago and reflects the expanded space for public discussion in Libya" said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should revise its penal code to allow all Libyans the freedom to have such public discussion without fear of criminal sanction and stop jailing those who express criticism of the government, including Jamal el Haji."
The 78-page report, "Libya: Truth and Justice Can't Wait," is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch during a 10-day visit to Libya in April, the organization's most recent trip to the country. The report is also based on ongoing monitoring from outside the country. The report finds that while the internet and two new newspapers in the country have given journalists increased space to write openly on certain sensitive subjects, heavy criminal sanctions continue to stifle journalists and prohibit freedom of association. Lawsuits and prosecutions of journalists under the country's libel laws have increased, but so far no journalist has been sentenced to prison.
Justice ministry efforts to secure the release of unjustly detained prisoners face continued opposition by the Internal Security Agency, which operates with impunity, imprisoning or "disappearing" Libyans at will. The government has tolerated increased activism by families of the 1996 massacre at Abu Salim prison, offering them compensation but still no accountability for the massacre. Human Rights Watch visited Abu Salim prison where it interviewed six prisoners. Human Rights Watch met with members of the Tripoli Bar Association and Journalists' Syndicate, relatives of prisoners, a former political prisoner, and families of those killed in Abu Salim prison. Human Rights Watch also met with the secretary of public security and the secretary of justice
In an important development, the Justice Ministry has prepared a second revised draft of the penal code, which reduces the penalties of its most repressive provisions, though it retains provisions that criminalize political speech, such as "insulting public officials" or "opposing the goals of the Revolution." In this atmosphere, while private newspapers and journalists for websites based abroad enjoy greater freedom, they continue to avoid directly questioning the leadership of the government, and the prosecutor's office continues to interrogate journalists for writing critical articles. On December 7, Internal Security officers arrested el Haji, a former political prisoner, following his online criticism of the government's continued detention of political prisoners and an interview with the BBC in September denouncing Libyan government abuses.
The Justice Ministry has also made some independent decisions, calling on the Internal Security agency to release unjustly detained prisoners. Libyan courts have ordered the government to reveal the fate of the Abu Salim victims. So far, though, neither the agency nor the government has complied with the orders. Many trials, especially those before the State Security Court, continue to fail to meet international due process standards, with limited access to counsel and right to appeal.
The Internal Security Agency retains full control over two prisons in Libya, Abu Salim, and Ain Zara, which are notorious for the arbitrary detention of political prisoners. According to the justice secretary, approximately 500 prisoners who have served their sentence or been acquitted by Libyan courts remain imprisoned under orders of the Internal Security Agency. For example, although the Libyan Supreme Court acquitted a dual British-Libyan citizen, Mahmoud Boushima, in March 2008 on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, he remains in Abu Salim prison. Human Rights Watch made a request to see him during its visit in April, but the Internal Security Agency refused.
"Efforts by the Justice ministry to address cases of unjustly imprisoned detainees are an important step in the right direction, but every Libyan knows that true reform in the country will not be possible so long as the Internal Security Agency remains above the law," Whitson said, "For a start, the Internal Security Agency should immediately release the 500 prisoners it is holding despite having absolutely no legal authority to do so."
The Internal Security Agency also continues to detain people without charge, holding them incommunicado for months at a time before bringing charges. In addition, Libya Human Rights Solidarity, a Swiss-based Libyan rights group, estimates that up to 30 "disappearance" cases remain unresolved, such as that of Imam Musa al Sadr, a prominent Lebanese cleric missing since 1978, and Libyan opposition members Jaballa Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef, who were last heard of in April 1996 while detained in Abu Salim prison. Libyan opposition groups based abroad also estimate that hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed, sentenced after unfair trials, but Human Rights Watch has not independently verified these figures. The country's most famous political prisoner, Fathi el Jahmi, died in May, after almost seven years in detention. Requests for information from the Libyan authorities about the number of Libyans currently detained under Law 71, which bans membership in political organizations, remain unanswered.
"The Libyan government immediately should free all prisoners detained for the peaceful expression of their opinion, such as Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for insulting the Leader." Whitson said.
Libyan authorities have prevented two Swiss citizens, Max Goldi and Rachid Hamdani, from leaving Libya since they were detained for 10 days and accused of visa violations in July 2008. This was in apparent retaliation for the detention by Swiss authorities of Hannibal Ghaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader, in Geneva a few days earlier. In September security officials abducted the two men from a Tripoli hospital and detained them incommunicado in solitary confinement for 52 days. This month, an immigration court sentenced both men to 16 months in prison for visa violations after an unfair hearing in which the men's lawyer was not able to address the evidence against them.
There have been important developments in Libya in connection with the government's compensation for the families of the 1,200 prisoners killed in June 1996 in Abu Salim prison, but it has still failed to provide a public account of what happened at the prison or to prosecute those responsible. For years the authorities denied the massacre had even taken place. Until late 2008, the vast majority of the families of the murdered prisoners received no information about them. In June 2008, however, families representing some Abu Salim victims won a court case ordering the Libyan government to reveal the fate of the prisoners. Following the case, Libyan authorities began issuing death certificates to the families and offering up to 200,000 Libyan Dinars ($164,300) compensation in exchange for forfeiting further legal claims in Libyan or international courts.
Most of the families in Benghazi, where many of the prisoners were from, have refused to accept compensation on those terms, insisting they want a full public account of what happened and punishment for those responsible. Mohamed Hamil Ferjany, a spokesperson for the families now based in the US, told Human Rights Watch that for him, "the money is irrelevant." He added: "My family spent years suffering, not knowing where my brothers were, only to be given a piece of paper 15 years later saying they are dead and nothing more. We want justice."
The Libyan authorities told Human Rights Watch in 2004 that an investigation into the incident was under way; but in April 2009 the justice secretary confirmed to Human Rights Watch that no such investigation had taken place. In September, the General People's Committee for Defense established an investigation panel consisting of seven investigative judges and headed by a former military judge to investigate the Abu Salim killings, 13 years after they occurred.
Calling for truth, accountability, and appropriate compensation, several hundred of the families have bravely demonstrated in Benghazi over the past months. Although the authorities have for the first time allowed these public demonstrations to take place, the families have faced harassment and intimidation from security officials and at times arrest.
"Money is not enough," Whitson said, "The Libyan people have a right to a full public accounting and punishment for those responsible for killing 1,200 prisoners on a single day in 1996."
Libya and the European Union are currently negotiating a framework agreement and will meet on December 16 for the next round of negotiations. Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to set measurable benchmarks for Libyan reform on key issues, such as revision of the penal code and the release of wrongly detained prisoners as a condition to the conclusion of this agreement. The organization also called on the UN's Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to request a visit to Libya's detention centers.