Rights report on Libya out

Human Rights Watch has just issued the first in a three-part report on human rights in Libya, a rare look into the bizarro world that is Qadhafi's Libya. The HRW researchers that worked on the report are the first activists to get access to political detainees, senior government officials and dissidents in a long time (if ever), so a lot of this stuff is compiled by an authoritative organization for the first time. It's well worth a look.

The release of the report coincided with the liberation of 14 political prisoners in Libya, including eight from a group called Al Ahly Football Fans. They were young supporters of Benghazi FC who rioted after their team lost a match and apparently shouted political slogans as well. They were initially sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted. HRW did not know much about the others, who belong to an Islamist group.

The report will be refreshing reading to people who follow human rights issues in Libya because it provides a quite wide range of examples of political prisoners. In the Western press at least, coverage of rights issues in Libya has focused on Bulgarian nurses accused of having contaminated a hospital's blood bank with AIDS on which the EU has made a lot of noise, or the case of Libya's most famous dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, who was liberated under pressure from the Bush administration and then re-arrested shortly thereafter because he called for Qadhafi's removal on Al Jazeera. From the report:

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.

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.

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.�

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." 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.�

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.�

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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.
On top of these issues, there is also coverage of Islamists, notably from the Muslim Brotherhood but also many other small groups (which the Libyan government say are violent), who as in most Arab countries form the bulk of the political prisoner population.

According to Fred Abrahams, one of HRW's researchers, one of the charges against al-Jahmi is meeting with a foreign diplomat -- and that diplomat was American. If the nationality of the diplomat is spelt out in the trial, Abrahams said, then the US has a "obligation" to apply greater pressure.

Another Libya story I saw this morning makes me wonder whether this pressure will be forthcoming. European and North American states have already taken it easy with Libya since the "change of mind" over WMD, the incredibly unreasonable Lockerbie bombing compensations and Tripoli's cooperation on intelligence and renditions/torture sub-contracting, in their eagerness to line up those juicy post-sanction reconstruction and oil contracts.

A group of US oil companies is now pushing to take Libya off the State Department's "sponsors of terrorism" list:
Libya expects the United States will soon remove it from its list of state sponsors of terror following the return to Libyan oilfields of the Oasis Group of U.S. companies, a top Libyan oil official said on Wednesday.


He said he was "positive and confident" the former pariah state would be wiped from the list, with the expected backing of the Oasis Group, comprising ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Amerada Hess.



"I would expect logically they will be willing to put the right message across to the U.S. government to do something about it quickly," Tarek Hassan-Beck of Libya's National Oil Company told Reuters in a telephone interview.



An international lawyer who has worked on cases involving Libya said he believed companies might be reluctant to pour new capital into the oil producer unless they had assurances Washington would restore full ties.



"This is a high-risk strategy .... unless of course there were some understanding as to how long the existing sanctions would remain," said Timothy Scrantom of Meridian 361 International Law Group.



Libya's presence on the list bars it from receiving U.S. arms exports, controls sales of items with military and civilian uses, limits U.S. aid and requires Washington to vote against loans from international financial institutions.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.