Page last updated at 18:53 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 19:53 UK

Victims' dismay at Libya's rehabilitation

Shuaib Alabied says he was brutally raped in custody in Libya

Libya is back in business with the West, able to exploit its oil and gas riches, after years of isolation. But as Lucy Ash reports, some are disappointed there has been little impact on the North African country's human rights record.

Shuaib Alabied cuddles his baby daughter but looks distracted. Clearly his mind is elsewhere.

The former car salesman from Tripoli is seeking asylum in Britain after fleeing Libya with his pregnant wife last year.

He is a Berber, racially different from the Arabs who rule Libya and he once belonged to the Amazighian Party which campaigns for cultural autonomy. The party - like all political groupings in Libya - is banned by the state.

In September 2006, Shuaib was arrested at his garage, taken to the police station and ordered to name other members of his party.

"The officer said to me: 'We have ways of making you talk'," says Shuaib. "They told me someone called Washi was coming."

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Washi was a plain clothes officer in the Ain Zara prison in the capital run by Libya's security service. Shuaib describes him as a muscular, tall man with a crew cut.

He says he slapped him, dragged him into a cell and subjected him to a brutal rape.

Shuaib's claim is supported by evidence supplied by the Medical Commission for Victims of Torture. He was kept in a dirty cell for three and a half months.

When he was eventually freed, he was determined to get out of Libya. So he fled across the desert to Tunisia and then via Turkey reached the UK with his wife.

Death penalty

When the authorities realised Shuaib had escaped, they arrested his father. Mr Alebied is still in prison but nobody knows where since no-one in the family has been able to speak to him since the police took him away.

Kristiana Valcheva
We are not interesting anymore, the government has forgotten us
Kristiana Valcheva
Bulgarian medic freed from Libya
Hassan El Amin, a Libyan based in London and the editor of an expatriate website, has heard many similar stories.

In the early hours of 17 February 2008, he received a call from a man speaking from Libya called Jum'a Boufayed. Jum'a was phoning from his home town of Gheryan to say that his brother Idriss - a surgeon and a leading dissident - had been seized by state security forces.

"He sounded very panicky and told me that the police had surrounded the house and then broken the door down," says Hassan. "He said that he too could be arrested at any time."

Idriss Boufayed had been taken into custody along with 12 other people who planned to hold what they described as a peaceful demonstration calling for democracy and human rights in Libya.

They are currently on trial in a State Security Court, accused of plotting against the state and possessing firearms - charges which carry the death penalty.

'Mysterious disappearances'

But what disturbs Hassan even more is that another man connected to the demonstration, Abd al-Rahman al-Qataiwi, a fourth-year medical student, mysteriously disappeared following his arrest and has not been seen for 15 months.

Col Gaddafi
Colonel Gaddafi received a red carpet welcome in France last summer

"My fear is that something went wrong during the interrogation," says Hassan.

Jum'a, who was arrested at the same time as Abd al-Rahman, and who also disappeared without trace, was suddenly released this week.

The Gaddafi Foundation, a non-governmental body run by the colonel's eldest son, Seif al Islam, argues that such abuses are rare.

The organisation has recently negotiated the freedom of large numbers of detainees, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Fred Abrahams, who monitors Libya for Human Rights Watch, says the record is at best mixed.

"This country has an extensive security structure and there is a definite atmosphere of fear," he says.

"People are afraid to talk and criticise the government - and with good reason because you get locked up and put away without due process."

According to the latest US State Department report, Libyan security personnel routinely torture prisoners during interrogations.

Arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention remain problems, says the report, which also mentions a large but unknown number of political prisoners.

But despite this, American petrol giants are pouring investment into the desert nation, which holds the largest oil reserves in Africa.

Oil deals

European companies have also been clinching deals on energy resources, nuclear technology and arms.

Ashraf, Al Jouj
Dr Ashraf al Jouj says he has been warned not to sue Libya

Last summer, Colonel Gaddafi - the man Ronald Reagan branded a "mad dog" - was given a red carpet welcome by France's President Sarkozy.

The state visit to Paris was largely seen as a reward, after the Libyan leader agreed to release six foreign medics from prison last July.

Back in 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted of deliberating injecting children with the HIV virus.

They had always denied the charges, but were sentenced to death by a firing squad - later commuted to life in prison - and spent eight and a half years behind bars before eventually being freed.

In the small church of St Nicolas in the centre of Sofia, Kristiana Valcheva lights a candle and says a prayer.

The 49-year-old nurse tries to think about her future but cannot help feeling bitter about suffering so much for a crime she did not commit.

Broken promises

"When we first got our freedom and flew back to Bulgaria, so many promises were made," says Kristiana.

"But now we are not interesting any more. The government has forgotten us."

Ashraf Alhajouj, the Palestinian doctor, remains grateful to France and to the government in Sofia for granting him Bulgarian citizenship while he was still in prison.

But now he wants both countries, and the rest of the European Union, to help him sue the Libyan government.

Determined to force Libya to admit that he and the nurses were wrongly accused, Dr Alhajouj has filed a lawsuit against Colonel Muammar Kaddafi's regime at the UN's Human Rights Committee in Geneva and in Paris.

But Axel Poniatowski, chairman of the French parliament's foreign affairs committee, is not encouraging.

Pragmatic diplomacy

"I really think that up to this point France has done its share," he says. "And we have to be pragmatic. Not every country is made in our image".

Dr Alhajouj says he has been privately warned, by officials from Bulgaria and the European Union, not to take legal action which could undermine the improvement in relations between Libya and the West and might jeopardise other foreign health workers still working in the North African nation.

But these kinds of arguments do not impress him.

"Inside a Libyan prison, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who suffered and are now suffering like I did," he says.

"The European Union must decide which is more important in its relations with Libya - human rights or oil."


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