Human rights in Libya must be on the agenda of discussions with US

As Condoleezza Rice becomes the first US Secretary of State to visit Libya in 55 years, Amnesty International urges the US government to make human rights an integral component of its bilateral cooperation with Libya. Rice is travelling to Libya today as part of her trip to North Africa, which will also include meetings with officials in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

In a letter addressed to the US Secretary of State this week, Amnesty International highlighted the key human rights concerns it believes she should raise during her historic visit. These include the continual repression of all forms of independent political thought and activity and the detention of prisoners of conscience, penalized solely for criticizing the Libyan authorities or seeking to organize public demonstrations against the government.

Despite modest improvements in the human rights field in Libya over the past few years, all forms of public expression, association and assembly are tightly controlled by the authorities. Any form of group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution of 1 September 1969, which brought Libya’s leader Colonel Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi to power, is criminalized by law.

The continued incarceration since 2004 of prisoner of conscience Fathi el-Jahmi epitomizes Libya’s violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Fathi al-Jahmi’s predicament is a result of the contacts he is alleged to have had with US diplomats in Tripoli and of the interviews he gave to satellite news channels in March 2004, in which he criticized the Libyan authorities.

In another case of repression of peaceful political dissent Idriss Boufayed and 11 others received heavy prison sentences of up to 25 years in June 2008. They were convicted of seeking to organize a peaceful protest against the Libyan authorities. The protest was to mark the one year anniversary of the killing of at least 12 people and the injuring of scores more during a demonstration in Benghazi in February 2006.

Amnesty International has called on Condoleezza Rice to take this opportunity of normalization of relations with Libya to urge the authorities there to immediately and unconditionally release prisoners of conscience and to repeal all laws which criminalize activities that merely amount to the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association.

Amnesty International also warned the US authorities not to forcibly transfer to Libya any Libyan nationals detained at Guantanamo. Those transferred would be at risk of grave human rights violations including incommunicado detention, torture and other ill-treatment and unfair trial proceedings.  Rather than concluding any agreement with the Libyan authorities facilitating involuntary transfers, Amnesty International said in its letter that the US authorities should find alternative solutions for Libyan nationals detained at Guantanamo that ensure their treatment is in full compliance with international law.

In the letter, which also outlined the organization’s human rights concerns in the other North African countries that Rice plans to visit, Amnesty International warned against the return to Algeria of any Algerian nationals currently held in Guantanamo, as they would similarly face risks of serious human rights violations. The organization has documented that violations such as incommunicado detention and torture and other ill-treatment continue to be committed by the Algerian authorities in the context of counter-terrorism.

The US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007 also state that security forces in Libya routinely torture prisoners and acknowledge that in Algeria torture allegations persist in a climate of impunity.

Amnesty International urges the US authorities to comply with the UN Human Rights Committee recommendation to “take all necessary measures” to ensure that it transferred no-one to another country “if there are substantial reasons for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Amnesty International hopes that Condoleezza Rice will not ignore salient human rights concerns for the benefit of other issues of mutual interest in her landmark visit to the region.