(New York) - The release on March 24 of at least 202 prisoners, including 80 who had been acquitted but continued to be held, was a positive step, but Libya should release all prisoners who continue to be detained despite judicial orders for their release, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The release of these prisoners was a positive development said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "but now the Libyan authorities should release the hundreds of others who are arbitrarily detained."
In a Tripoli news conference today, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader, Mu'ammar el-Gaddafi, announced the release of the 214 prisoners, including the 80 acquitted of the offenses with which they had been charged. He said another 34 were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group which had sought to overthrow Gaddafi's rule, and 100 others were "individuals with a direct relationship to the groups operating in Iraq." Later that day however, independent Libyan news website Libya Al Youm reported that Abu Salim prison authorities had refused to release 12 prisoners who were on the list and had told the waiting families that they would be released in the next 28 days.
Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi said this brought the total number of prisoners released as a result of efforts by the quasi-governmental Gaddafi Foundation, which he leads, to 705. He said that 409 prisoners remained in Abu Salim prison, of whom 232 "would soon be released" when "we are sure that those individuals will no longer pose a threat to society and that they are ready to reintegrate."
One of those who remain in Abu Salim prison despite having been acquitted by a court is Mahmoud Boushima, a dual British-Libyan citizen who lived in the UK and returned to Libya on July 17, 2005. On July 28, 2005, internal security forces arrested and imprisoned him in Abu Salim. The state security prosecutor then charged him with membership in an illegal organization, in this case the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, under Article 206 of the penal code and Articles 2, 3 and 4 of Law 71. On March 18, 2006 the specialized court of appeal (Mahkama Takhasusiyya) acquitted him in case No. 411/2005. The prosecutor appealed this decision on April 22, 2006, and on February 20, 2007, the court ruled again in Boushima's favor. His case eventually came before the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor on March 30, 2008, and ordered his release. This order for release has been ignored by the Internal Security Agency, which controls Abu Salim prison.
"Several Libyan courts including the highest court said there was no evidence implicating Mahmoud Boushima in any crime," Stork said. "Security officials should not be able to get away with ignoring the highest court in the land especially when someone's liberty is at stake."
Over the past year Justice Secretary Mostafa Abdeljalil has publicly called for the release of the hundreds of prisoners who have served their sentences or been acquitted by Libyan courts. In December 2009, Human Rights Watch met with Abdeljalil, who confirmed that the Office of the General Prosecutor had ordered the release of these prisoners but that the Internal Security Agency had refused to comply. He also said the judiciary has no power to order an investigation of the Internal Security Agency because its agents are immune from prosecution unless the interior minister waives their immunity.
Human Rights Watch raised the subject with Libyan security officials following its news conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on December 12, 2009, to discuss human rights abuses in Libya. In a meeting later that day, the head of internal security, Colonel Al-Tohamy Khaled, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that his agency was detaining 330 prisoners in Abu Salim prison whose sentences had ended or who had been acquitted. He said that his agency believed the men were a security risk because of their Jihadist views, and that the judges who had ordered their release "did not understand" the situation, in some cases acquitting them on technical procedural grounds.
Some of the men involved were acquitted in March 2008, or had sentences that ended in early 2009. Libyan law does not provide for preventive detention, nor does it allow security agencies to continue to detain prisoners on grounds of national security. Neither the Justice Ministry nor the Internal Security Agency would provide Human Rights Watch with a list of those currently detained outside the law, nor is the information publicly available.
"Today's releases should be followed immediately with greater transparency about detention," Stork said. "The Internal Security Agency should make public the names of all those prisoners it continues to lock up despite court decisions ordering their release."
In its first annual report published on December 10, 2009, the Gaddafi Foundation also called for the release of these men. Its report called for the "implementation of all final court orders," saying that the failure to respect the rule of law calls into question the "legitimacy of a government that is unable to implement court decisions. . . . This raises the deeper question of who is ruling the country, is it the General People's Committee [Libya's cabinet], or is it other forces? "