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(New York) – The Libyan government should take the opportunity of the Arab League meeting this weekend to reveal the fate of high-profile people who disappeared in Libya years ago and have not been heard from since, Human Rights Watch said today. The Arab league will meet in Sirte, Libya, on March 27, 2010.

Human Rights Watch cited the case of Imam Musa al-Sadr, a prominent Lebanese Shii cleric, who disappeared in Libya 32 years ago. Another case involves two Libyan opposition members whom Egyptian security officials arrested in Cairo and returned to Libya, where they disappeared, 20 years ago this month.

“One of the themes of this Arab League summit is reconciliation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Libya should use this opportunity to inform the families who have been suffering the pain of not knowing where their loved ones are.”

In late 2008, Libyan authorities for the first time started to address the hundreds of disappearance cases in connection with a massacre at the Abu Salim prison in 1996. The government had never publicly revealed what happened there, and some of those who died had not been heard from for as long as 17 years. Over the past year, the authorities have informed at least 800 families that their loved ones perished at the prison in 1996, offering compensation in exchange for relinquishing any legal claims. But many other Libyan disappearance cases remain unresolved.

In the case of the two Libyan opposition figures, Jaballa Hamed Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef, Egyptian security forces arrested them in Cairo on March 13, 1990. Their families later learned that Egyptian security forces had handed them over the next day to Libyan security officials, who detained them in Abu Salim prison.

In 1993, a friend of the Matar family brought them a letter dated 1992 in Jaballa Matar’s handwriting that said he was in Abu Salim prison. A second letter, dated 1995, reached the family in 1996. The Matar family has never received a response from Libyan officials on the whereabouts of Jaballa Matar, despite requests over the years. Hisham Matar, who has been campaigning for his father’s release, wrote in The Independent: “One can still find peace in the finality of death. And yet, my loss gives no peace. My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete.”

Youcif al-Megaryef, the son of Izzat al-Megaryef, told Human Rights Watch that Egyptian Intelligence officers had come to the family house in Cairo on March 13, 1990, and taken his father away for questioning. That was the last time his family saw him.

The Megaryef family later received letters from Izzat written in 1993 and an audio recording in his voice saying that Egyptian security officers had handed him over to Libyan intelligence on March 14, 1990. Former Abu Salim prisoners told al-Megaryef’s family that they had communicated in prison with Izzat al-Megaryef, the last time in April 1996. The Libyan authorities never responded to the family’s enquiries about al-Megaryef’s whereabouts, and the family continues to call for his release.

“Disappearances are a continuous crime for which the Libyan government is responsible,” Whitson said. “It needs to inform the families of Jaballa Matar and Ezzat el Megarief, and other disappeared prisoners, of their whereabouts and fate.”

Imam Sayed Musa al-Sadr, the Lebanese Shia cleric, arrived in Libya on August 25, 1978, accompanied by Sheikh Mohamad Yacouband and journalist Abbas Badreddine, for a meeting with the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. They were last seen on August 31, when the three set out from their Tripoli hotel for the meeting. Libyan authorities have denied any involvement in the disappearances, saying that the meeting with Gaddafi never took place and that the three had left for Rome.

Italy conducted an investigation, which concluded that the three had never arrived in Rome. In 2005, al-Sadr’s family refused an offer of compensation from Libya. Their Lebanese lawyer, Chibli Mallat, said that the family rejected the offer because the family wanted to establish the truth of what happened and hold accountable those responsible. The disappearance of al-Sadr and his companions has long troubled relations between Libya and Lebanon, and Lebanon will not send any top leaders to the summit, limiting itself to its ambassador to the Arab league.

Under international law, victims and their families have a right to know the truth about violations they suffered. On March 12, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that under international law “the right to the truth implies knowing the full and complete truth about events that transpired … In cases of enforced disappearance and missing persons, the right also implies the right to know the fate and whereabouts of the victim.”

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Libya has an obligation to provide an accessible, effective, and enforceable remedy – including justice, truth, and adequate reparations – after a violation has occurred.

The extreme anguish inflicted upon relatives of the “disappeared” makes the family direct victims of the violation as well, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2006, the United Nations opened for signature the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The convention defines the grave and serious violation of human rights of an enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

“If Libya wishes to close this chapter in its history, it should sign the Enforced Disappearance Convention and tell the truth about what happened to these victims,” Whitson said, “It should provide reparation and prosecute those responsible for their disappearance.”

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