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(Beirut) – Libya’s Supreme Court should suspend death sentences against a former Gaddafi official and a pro-Gaddafi fighter whose trial raises due process concerns. Military and civil courts have handed down at least 16 death sentences in 2012 and 2013, and another dozen in absentia. The government should announce an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and move toward abolishing it outright.

On July 31, 2013, the Misrata Appeals Court convicted Ahmed Ibrahim and Walid Dabnoon for crimes committed during Libya’s 2011 uprising, including murder and kidnapping, and sentenced them to death by firing squad. Lawyers for Ibrahim, a former Gaddafi-era official, and Dabnoon, a volunteer fighter in 2011 with pro-Gaddafi forces, told Human Rights Watch they were not able to meet with their clients privately or to question key witnesses. Ibrahim and Dabnoon appealed the conviction on September 22 to set in motion the process for a Supreme Court review of the death sentences.

“These tainted sentences contradict Libya’s commitment to uphold international fair trial standards,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the number of people now on death row, and the general state of disarray in Libya’s justice system, Libya should impose an immediate moratorium on capital punishment.”

Under Libya’s Code for Criminal Procedures, the Supreme Court needs to confirm the death sentences and then the High Judicial Council needs to approve.

The Appeals Court convicted Ibrahim of “inciting civil war and creating discord among the population,” complicity in the kidnapping, and killing of members of a family in Sirte perceived to be anti-Gaddafi, in central Libya, on September 12, 2011. The accusations also included “spreading false rumors and fabrications during the state of war with the aim of terrorizing the population” and committing acts that “endanger the general public.”

The conflict between anti- and pro-Gaddafi forces was raging in Sirte in September 2011. The anti-Gaddafi forces gained control of Sirte on October 20, 2011, in the process killing Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage.

As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, military and civil criminal courts in Misrata, Zawiyah, Benghazi, and Tripoli have issued 28 death sentences, 12 of them in absentia, since the end of the 2011 conflict. These include cases related to the 2011 conflict, as well as common crime cases – mostly for murder.

Of those convicted, Ibrahim and Dabnoon and four other fighters sentenced to death in absentia with them are the first who were not formal members of the military to be sentenced to death for crimes committed in relation to the 2011 conflict, which ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. The case included four other defendants, who were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years.

On June 5, the Misrata Military Court sentenced to death two soldiers for murder and indiscriminate firing on civilians during the 2011 conflict. On March 13, the Benghazi Criminal Court issued five death sentences against people convicted of an armed robbery that resulted in five deaths. Between January and August, the Zawiyah Criminal Court issued four death sentences in three separate cases, all involving murder. On September 26, the Tripoli Appeals Court issued three death sentences in a murder case.

No death sentences have been carried out by formal state courts since 2010.

Human rights law upholds every human being’s inherent right to life, and for countries that have not agreed to ban the death penalty completely, it limits the death penalty to the most serious crimes, typically crimes resulting in death. In Libya, the death penalty appears frequently in legislation as a proposed punishment for various crimes. Provisions for the death penalty can be found in at least 30 articles of the Libyan Penal Code, including for acts of a political nature, sabotage, and forming any organizations or formations deemed “illegal” without further specifying the prohibition.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature. But the Ibrahim and Dabnoon cases raise additional human rights and due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

Lawyers and family members for Ibrahim and people knowledgeable about the proceedings against Dabnoon told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities allowed only some of the visits the lawyers requested and dismissed lawyers’ requests to meet with their clients privately. The sources said a guard was present during meetings at the detention site and in court, intimidating the defendants and making them reluctant to discuss the case freely with the lawyers.

Lawyers were not present during prosecutors’ interrogations of the two men. During the court proceedings, the presiding judge rejected the defense lawyers’ requests to summon key witnesses for cross examination. The court relied on allegedly coerced confessions by co-defendants who incriminated Ibrahim and Dabnoon.

In Libya’s deteriorating security environment, there are numerous cases of militias harassing, intimidating, and threatening lawyers, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, and family members of defendants. Human Rights Watch is aware of alleged threats against at least one of the lawyers in the Ibrahim and Dabnoon case.

Throughout 2013, Human Rights Watch has documented such attacks by militias in Benghazi, Derna, Zawiyah, and Misrata. In June, a prominent judge was assassinated by unidentified assailants in Derna, in eastern Libya. In August, unidentified assailants assassinated Benghazi’s chief military prosecutor.

The weakness of the Judicial Police, the force responsible for security during trial proceedings and for operating detention facilities, is compounded by a lack of capacity and training. Authorities have struggled with limited success to gain control over all detention facilities, including those run by militias.

Detainees, lawyers, and family members of defendants whom Human Rights Watch interviewed during 2013 throughout Libya complained about the lack of judicial reviews and access to legal representation.

Under the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, states are required to guarantee that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference, and that their security is not threatened as a result of discharging their functions.

The UN Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts who review countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has said that, “In cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty, scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important,” and that any death penalty imposed after an unfair trial would be a violation of the right to a fair trial.

Libya should join the many countries already committed to the UN General Assembly’s December 18, 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on executions, part of a global trend toward abolishing the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said.

“Adherence to fair trial standards is more important than ever in death penalty cases,” Stork said. “Courts shouldn’t give in to pressure from the street, and Libya should align itself with the growing global consensus against the death penalty.”

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