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VIII. Political Prisoners

“All that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him.”
—The political prisoner Fathi al-Jahmi in an interview with al-Hurra Television on March 16, 2004, ten days before his arrest.

The Libyan government denies that it incarcerates political prisoners.  In a speech in the eastern city of Sirte on January 11, 2005, Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi said:

They [Western countries] are accusing us of having political prisoners; and I am sure this is an unjust accusation.  I think that those who are in prisons have used religion, they are heretics.  These are people who instead of fasting, praying and preaching good are turning religion into violence, coups d’etats, underground activities.60

The head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency Col. Tohamy Khaled repeated this view when he told Human Rights Watch that people in prison for politically-related crimes were “terrorists” who had politicized Islam and sought the violent overthrow of the Libyan government.  He said:

The elements arrested, currently in prison, are criminal terrorists whom we have put in prison to secure the lives of honest, free citizens.  They had to be arrested and placed in prison so that the free citizen can rest assured that his security will not be threatened in his home, on the street or anywhere else.61

Despite these claims, scores of individuals are in prison for peacefully expressing criticism of the government or alternative political views.  Most often the authorities charge offenders with violating Law 71, which bans political activity that opposes the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution.  Article 3 of the law imposes the death penalty on those who form, join or support such groups.

According to the head of Libya’s prison authority, Brigadier Belqassim Gargoom, Libya had 12,860 people in the country’s thirty-four “correction and rehabilitation facilities” as of late April 2005, but he declined to say how many of these people were incarcerated for political crimes.62  The number does not include those held in facilities run the by Internal Security Agency, such as Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.   In a memo sent on October 12, 2005, Human Rights Watch asked the government how many people were in prison for having violated Law 71 but, as of January 10, 2006, the government had not replied.

While denying the existence of political prisoners, al-Qadhafi also has called for the establishment of a committee “to make sure that there is not one single political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience.”  In the January speech cited above, he said: “It is not possible that there should be one single prisoner of conscience.  We must be sure of that.”

The committee, which included members from the Qadhafi Foundation, concluded in late summer that the government should release 131 prisoners, among them the eighty-six prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood, because they had renounced violence and were willing to reintegrate into Libyan society.  According to the Qadhafi Foundation, however, individuals from the following groups should remain in prison because they pose a threat to society:

  • Jama` al-Salafiyya (Salafi Group)—thirty-eight people
  • Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (Excommunication and Migration63)—thirty-nine people
  • Jama` al-Istishahdiyya (Martyrs Group)—twenty-five people
  • Jama` al-Muqatila (al-Muqatila Group)—182 people
  • Tajamu` al-Islami (Islamic Grouping)—forty people
  • Jama` al-Jihadiyya (al-Jihad Group)—eighty-eight people
  • Al-Tabligh wa al-Da`wa (Propagation and Preaching)—one person.64

In an August 25, 2005 interview with al-Jazeera television, head of the association Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi said the government would free the 131 prisoners in a matter of days:

[T]he number that will be released in the coming few days is 131, which includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as members of other groups that have adopted violent means such as The Libyan Fighting Group and the Repudiation and Renunciation groups [al-Takfir wa al-Hijra]. Those individuals have changed their thought and convictions. There is an overall conviction that they will integrate in the society and abandon violence.65

On September 10 and 11, the authorities released five political prisoners serving terms up to life for membership in the banned Islamic Grouping: `Ali Be’aou, Tariq al-Dernawi, Tawfiq al-Jehani, Ramadan Shaglouf and Musa al-Ziwi.  It is not clear if the five men, in prison since 1998, were among the 131 prisoners whose imminent release Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi had announced.  Reportedly, the authorities freed them only after they promised not to engage in political activity.66  As of January 10, 2006, the authorities had not released any other political prisoners.

The standards the committee used to determine that 131 political prisoners should be released remain unclear.  According to Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, one important criteria was that the prisoners pledged to respect Libyan law and to engage only in peaceful activity within the framework of Libya’s political system. As he told al-Jazeera, the people to be released “have convinced us that they are interacting peacefully in society.”

Secretary of Justice Bakr told Human Rights Watch that the committee set its own standards and manner of work.  Human Rights Watch suggested that the committee and any future efforts to investigate the existence of political prisoners apply the international standards of free speech and association that Libya is obliged to uphold as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  No one should be prosecuted or detained for the peaceful expression of political views, even those that are critical of the Libyan government or the Jamahiriya system.  In addition, future committees should work in a transparent way, making public their standards and findings.

On or around October 22, 2005, 135 other prisoners in Abu Salim convicted by the People’s Court reportedly held a protest to demand that they also get new trials.  According to a media report, the protest ended peacefully when the authorities agreed they would review the prisoners’ files.67

Below are examples of some current political prisoners:

Fathi al-Jahmi

The most well-known political prisoner in Libya today is Fathi al-Jahmi, an engineer and former provincial governor, whom the Internal Security Agency has held for more than twenty-one months without trial at a special facility in Tripoli.68

Internal security forces first arrested al-Jahmi, aged sixty-four, on October 19, 2002, after he spoke critically against the government and Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi at a Basic People’s Congress in Tripoli, calling for the abolition of the Green Book, free elections in Libya, a free press, and the release of political prisoners.  The People’s Court subsequently sentenced him to five years in prison, apparently for defaming the country’s leader and the Jamahiriya system.

On March 1, 2004, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden met al-Qadhafi and called for al-Jahmi’s release.  Nine days later, the appeals chamber of the People’s Court heard al-Jahmi’s case, and gave him a suspended sentence of one year.  Al-Jahmi was released on March 12.

The Internal Security Agency has held Fathi al-Jahmi, 64,
without a trial since March 2004.
© Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch 2005

In Washington, President Bush welcomed al-Jahmi’s release.  “Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi al-Jahmi,” he said.  “She’s [sic] a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy.  It’s an encouraging step toward reform in Libya.  You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things.”69

That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the U.S.-funded al-Hurra Television in which he repeated his call for Libya’s democratization.  He gave another interview to the station on March 16, in which he called al-Qadhafi a dictator and said, “all that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him.”70  On March 25, he told al-Arabiyya Television, “I don’t recognize the revolutionary committees, and I don’t recognize al-Qadhafi as the leader of Libya.”71

The next day, security agents entered al-Jahmi’s Tripoli house and arrested him, his wife Fawzia Abdullah Gogha and their eldest son Muhammad Fathi al-Jahmi.  The arrest was for their own protection, officials said, due to public outrage over the interviews he had given.

The Internal Security Agency detained al-Jahmi and his family in an undisclosed location for six months, without access to relatives or lawyers.  There were no known charges against them, and the government continued to claim that they were being held for their own safety—a claim repeated to Human Rights Watch about Fathi al-Jahmi in May 2005.

On September 23, 2004, the authorities released al-Jahmi’s son Muhammad, and they released his wife Fawzia on November 4.  At this writing in January 2006, Fathi al-Jahmi remained in detention.

The first international organization to visit al-Jahmi was the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which sent a doctor to examine him in February 2005.  The organization found that al-Jahmi suffered from diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease.  His “often haphazard care,” the group said, “has placed Mr. al-Jahmi at a significantly increased danger of a critical or fatal cardiovascular incident and severe kidney failure, among others.”72

On May 10, 2005, Human Rights Watch visited al-Jahmi at his place of detention, run by internal security.  The facility was a simple, one-room building with basic furniture, a satellite television, kitchen, and bathroom in a guarded compound near the coast.  Al-Jahmi said he was free to walk around the compound during the day, but guards locked the door at night.  The authorities had not informed him of Human Rights Watch’s visit, he said, but he had anticipated guests when the guards began cleaning up.73

The government has not made public the charges against al-Jahmi, but he told Human Rights Watch that he faces charges on three counts under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government, insulting al-Qadhafi, and contacting foreign authorities.74  The third charge, he said, is due to conversations he had with a U.S. diplomat in Tripoli.

Al-Jahmi said he had been to court approximately ten times over the previous ten months, although he did not specify whether these sessions were part of his trial.  Most likely they were hearings in front of a judge for the prosecution to request an extension of pre-trial detention, as required by Libyan law.

Al-Jahmi has refused a Libyan lawyer because “they can’t say anything when it comes to Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi,” and he demands international representation.  He has refused to speak in court. He made clear that, if released, he would not hesitate to criticize al-Qadhafi again.  His two immediate complaints were not being able to get newspapers or reading material and having limited visits from his family.  He has not seen his youngest daughter since his arrest.

Al-Jahmi said his health was relatively stable and he gets the necessary medications. However, when Human Rights Watch spoke with him in May 2005, security officials had not allowed him to see a doctor since the February visit of Physicians for Human Rights, despite promises to the organization that he would be free to see a doctor of his choice.  The authorities allowed him to see a doctor in a Tripoli hospital on the day of Human Rights Watch’s visit, he said.

After the visit, Human Rights Watch inspected al-Jahmi’s Tripoli home, which security forces had reportedly ransacked during the time when al-Jahmi’s wife and son were detained.  The family had cleaned the house’s downstairs but the upstairs was still damaged with broken furniture and scattered papers.  According to Fathi al-Jahmi, “they used it like animals under instructions from al-Qadhafi and his cousins.  I lost everything I have in the house—all my documents and cash and money.  They took everything my son has for his Internet café.”

According to the head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency Col. Tohamy Khaled, the government arrested al-Jahmi according to the law, and he will face a trial.  He was holding al-Jahmi in a special detention facility for his own safety and because he is “mentally deranged.”  He told Human Rights Watch:

I’m responsible for his health care, his detention, and I want to say this: if this man was not detained because he provoked people—they could have attacked him in his home.  Therefore, he is facing trial…He’s in special detention because he’s mentally disturbed and we’re worried he will cause a problem for us.75

According to al-Jahmi’s family, unknown individuals tried to set the family’s Tripoli house on fire on May 23, but a family member was able to douse the flame.  The police confirmed the arson attempt, the family said.

The family also told Human Rights Watch in November that the authorities have forbidden all relatives to visit al-Jahmi for more than seven months.  The last time they visited al-Jahmi was on or around June 5, 2005, despite multiple requests.76  Human Rights Watch asked the Libyan government in October 2005 about al-Jahmi’s medical and family visits but had received no reply as of January 10, 2006.77

Human Rights Watch raised Fathi al-Jahmi’s case with Shukri Ghanem, the General Secretary of the General People’s Congress.  “I can assure you that the trial will be fair,” he said.78

Muslim Brotherhood

In June 1988, security forces arrested 152 Libyan men, most of them academics and professionals, for their membership in Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.  The authorities held the men for more than two years in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers.  Some said they were tortured.79

The trial before the People’s Court began in March 2001.  Eleven months later, the court sentenced eleven of the men to ten years in prison and seventy-three of them to life in prison for violating Law 71.  The two leaders of the brotherhood, Professors Abdullah Ahmad `Izzedin and Salim Abu Hanak, received the death penalty, and they remain on death row as of January 2006.  Sixty-six of the defendants were acquitted.  Human Rights Watch interviewed Professors `Izzedin and Hanak in May 2005 in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.  According to `Izzedin, previously a professor of nuclear engineering at al-Fateh University, the Muslim Brotherhood peacefully works to promote Islamic values in society.  It is “based on tolerance and moderation and it condemns violence in all forms,” he said.80

This view was repeated by the current head of the Brotherhood, Sulayman `Abd al-Qadir, in an interview he gave for al-Jazeera in August 2005.  “We have a peaceful program based on dialogue,” he said.  Asked about Law 71, which the Brotherhood members were convicted of violating, `Abd al-Qadir said: “We must first consider the law itself, if it is indeed for the sake of human rights and public freedoms and then consider the work of the Muslim Brotherhood. This organization’s aim is to educate the individual and regain the identity of the nation.”81

Former head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, Salem Abu Hanek,
is on death row in Tripoli's Abu Selim prison for violating Law 71,
which bans any group activity in opposition to the principles of the 1969 al-Fateh Revolution.
© 2005 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Abdullah Ahmed 'Izzedin, former deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya,
is on death row in Tripoli's Abu Selim prison.
© 2005 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Libyan security officials view the Muslim Brotherhood as a breeding ground for terrorists.  “They don’t call for direct violence,” head of the Internal Security Agency Col. Tohamy Khaled told Human Rights Watch.  “They spread an ideology until they’re ready, and the next step is using violence.”  Their arrest was “a preemptive measure,” he said.82

“We have no problem with the state,” Professor `Izzedin told Human Rights Watch in the director’s office of the prison, which is run by the Internal Security Agency.  “We call for reform for the benefit of society.”  He added, “We respect the government, its institutions and laws—we want to work with them.”

After the interview, on May 8, a senior government official told Human Rights Watch that the authorities would release the eighty-six members of the Muslim Brotherhood “in the coming weeks.”  In August, Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi told al-Jazeera that the brotherhood members were among the 131 political prisoners slated for release.  “We will witness the release of prisoners from groups which no one would have thought would be pardoned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist groups,” he said.83

On October 9, 2005, Libya’s Supreme Court granted the brotherhood members a retrial—apparently a compromise between government officials who had urged their release and those who demanded they stay.84  The first session took place on November 8 in front of what a media report called a “special court” on the grounds of the Police Academy in Tripoli, where the People’s Court used to convene.85  The presiding judge postponed the hearing until November 28 after a request by the defense.  As of January 10, 2006, he had postponed the trial three more times.86 In Human Rights Watch’s view, the authorities should immediately release the Muslim Brotherhood members or, if there is evidence that they used or planned to use violence, grant them a prompt and fair trial with international observers.

Prisoners Who Have “Disappeared”

Libyan organizations based outside Libya claim that dozens of political prisoners have gone missing.  One group, Human Rights Solidarity, has published a list of 258 prisoners whose relatives have lost contact with them since their detention.  The Qadhafi Foundation has also expressed concern, stating that there are “numerous cases where detainees lost their lives in situations and events that are bound by obscurity.”87

In one case during Human Rights Watch’s mission, the Libyan government said that a prisoner missing to his family since 1996 was dead.  According to head of the Internal Security Agency Col. Khaled, the missing prisoner, Ahmad `Abd al-Qadir al-Thulthi, died of natural causes in prison.  He did not provide the date or cause of death.  Al-Thulthi’s brother told Human Rights Watch in November 2005 that the government had not provided further information about al-Thulthi’s fate.  “We have not received any form of communication from the government,” said Ashraf al-Thulthi, who lives in the United States and was co-founder of the American Libyan Freedom Alliance.  “I even made an appeal through the U.S. congress and through various Libyan websites abroad, just to let us know if he is dead or alive.”88

According to Law 47 of 1975 on prisons, the government must immediately inform the family of an inmate in the case of death, and it must return the body on request.89  The Internal Security Agency oversees Abu Salim prison, where Ahmad al-Thulthi was held, and it is not clear if the agency is bound by the law.

Born in 1955, Ahmad `Abd al-Qadir al-Thulthi studied in the United Kingdom between 1975 and 1985.  He was politically active during this time as vice-chair of the Arab Student Union and active in a Libyan opposition group called al-Burkan Watani (National Volcano), which claimed responsibility for the killing of two Libyan officials abroad.  He participated in demonstrations against the government, including the April 17, 1984 protest outside the Libyan embassy in London, during which someone apparently from inside the embassy shot and killed police officer Yvonne Fletcher and wounded ten others, including Ahmad.

The Libyan authorities first arrested al-Thulthi after his return on April 18, 1986, just after the U.S. military bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, accusing him of being an American agent.  The authorities released him in July 1986 but rearrested him later that month on accusations that he had participated in an illegal political organization.  A criminal court acquitted him in 1987 due to a lack of evidence but he remained in detention.  His family visited him in Abu Salim prison until June 1996, when they lost contact.90

According to Col. Khaled, a court sentenced al-Thulthi for involvement in an armed opposition group.  Internal security agents found seventy mines in his home, which he had planned to place under the cars of Libyan officials, he said.  He provided Human Rights Watch with a video tape, apparently taken in 1986, which showed al-Thulthi confessing to his crimes, demonstrating how he planned to plant car bombs and admitting he is a U.S. agent.

Human Rights Watch also heard credible reports from two sources in Libya who wanted to remain anonymous that the authorities were holding two political prisoners in Abu Salim prison, Abdullah `Abd al-Salam and Wensees al-Sharef, past their sentences.  A Libyan lawyer who did not wish to be named said the families of the prisoners had no information on their relatives’ whereabouts.  Human Rights Watch asked the Libyan government about the two men on October 12, 2005, but the government had not responded as of January 10, 2006.

[60] “Libya Should Be Free of Political Prisoners, Says Al-Gadhafi,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, Libyan TV, January 11, 2005.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Tohamy Khaled, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Brig. Belqassim Gargoom, director of the prison authority, Benghazi, April 23, 2005.

[63] Other translations for al-Takfir wa al-Hijra include Repudiation and Renunciation and Atonement and Pilgrimage.

[64] Statement of the Al-Qadhafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, June 15, 2005.  See, accessed October 6, 2005.

[65] “Libyan Leader’s Son on Call to Reopen Human Rights Files,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, August 25, 2005, translated from al-Jazeera, Behind the News program, August 20, 2005.

[66] Amnesty International, “Libya: Releases Welcome but Other Prisoners of Conscience Should Also Be Freed,” September 26, 2005.

[67] “Kamal al-Marjari: Abu Salim Prisoners End Their Sit-in,” Akhbar Libya, October 24, 2005,, accessed October 25, 2005.

[68] Al-Jahmi resigned as Governor of the Gulf Province in 1977.

[69] “President, Mrs. Bush Mark Progress in Global Women’s Human Rights,” Office of the Press Secretary, March 12, 2004, available at, as of December 3, 2005.

[70] Interview with Fathi al-Jahmi on al-Hurra Television, March 16, 2004.

[71] Interview with Fathi al-Jahmi on al-Arabiyya Television, March 25, 2004.

[72]Physicians for Human Rights, “International Human Rights Groups Examine Seriously Ill Libyan Political Prisoner and Call for His Immediate Release,” March 24, 2005.  See the full medical assessment, “Medical Assessment of Mr. Fathi el-Jahmi,” March 21, 2005, at, as of August 8, 2005.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with Fathi al-Jahmi, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[74] Article 166 addresses “conspiring with a foreign state to provoke war against Libya.”  Article 167 addresses “conspiring with foreigners to harm the country’s military and political position.”

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Tohamy Khaled, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[76] E-mail to Human Rights Watch from Muhammad al-Jahmi, November 14, 2005.

[77] Human Rights Watch memo to the Government of Libya, October 12, 2005.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Shukri Ghanim, Tripoli, April 28, 2005.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Salem Abu Hanak, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.  See also Amnesty International, Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality, August 2004.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdullah Ahmed `Izzedin, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[81]Al-Jazeera Television, August 3, 2005.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Tohamy Khaled, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[83] “Libyan Leader’s Son on Call to Reopen Human Rights Files,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, August 25, 2005, translated from al-Jazeera, Behind the News program, August 20, 2005.

[84] See Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Retrial of Political Prisoners a Step Forward,” October 12, 2005.

[85] “Postponement of the Muslim Brotherhood Members Until November 28,” Libya al-Youm, November 8, 2005.  See, accessed November 14, 2005.

[86] See, for example, “After Heated Debate for Two Hours, the Court Postponed Decision for the Muslim Brotherhood Case Until December 22,” December 12, 2005, available at, accessed December 12, 2005.

[87] Human Rights Society of the Qadhafi Foundation, “Reservations and Demands,” July 17, 2003.

[88] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ashraf al-Thulti, November 20, 2005.

[89] Law 47 (1975), article 48.

[90] For more information, see Amnesty International, Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality, April 2004.  Amnesty International delegates visited al-Thulthi in Abu Salim in June 1988.  They tried again during the organization’s February 2004 visit but were not allowed.  Then-director of Abu Salim prison Milad Daman told them al-Thulthi was “alive and well” at a facility in Benghazi.  The current director of Abu Salim was introduced to Human Rights Watch as Lt. Khalifa.

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