Rights group says Libya still behind on freedoms

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Posted: Dec 12, 2009 4:07 PM

A leading human rights group said Saturday that Libyan dissidents continue to face arbitrary detention and unfair trials, despite a limited expansion of freedoms since the country began to shed its pariah status several years ago.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report on the country during a rare news conference inside Libya for an international rights group. In attendance were relatives of political detainees, and the event was covered by Libyan journalists, reflecting a growing tolerance of public discussion by the government.

The country's rights record, however, remains poor despite Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's steps to bring it out of isolation, the rights group said.

In a stunning turnaround, Gadhafi announced in 2003 that he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions.

"This transformation in Libya's foreign policy has not galvanized an equivalent transformation of Libya's human rights record, which remains poor despite limited progress in recent years," Human Rights Watch said in its 76-page report.

The group focused much of its criticism on laws restricting freedom of expression and association. It pointed to the Internal Security Agency, which it said is still responsible for systematic violations, including the detention of political prisoners, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody.

"Every Libyan knows that the true reform in the country will not be possible so long as the Internal Security Agency remains above the law," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Hundreds of detainees remain jailed even after their sentences have expired, political parties remain criminalized and there are no independent civil groups, Human Rights Watch said. The only three local rights groups are run by two of the Libyan leader's children and the son of a senior Libyan official.

Many trials fail to meet international standards of due process, and defendants have limited access to counsel and little right to appeal, the group said.

The report followed a 10-day visit to Libya in April in which researchers met with senior security and judicial officials and interviewed prisoners in one of Libya's most notorious prisons, Abu Salim.

"Libya's reintegration into the international community means that its human rights records has and will come under increasing scrutiny," the group's report said.

Human Rights Watch said Libya has still failed to provide a public account of what happened during prison riots in 1996 in which 1,200 prisoners were killed. It has also not prosecuted anyone, though the government has begun to pay families compensation.

"Money is not enough," Whitson said.

The group said improvements included the government's granting licenses to two private newspapers in 2007. But criticism of the leadership remains off limits.

A week before the report was released, a prominent government critic and former prisoner Jamal al-Haji was arrested for his writings and interviews with international media.

Echoing some of the group's criticism, the local Human Rights Association, founded by Gadhafi's son 10 years ago, said laws continue to violate human rights, including by barring independent professional groups and free media.

In a report released Thursday, the association called for dismantling the State Security Court, also criticized by Human Rights Watch for holding unfair trials.