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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 20:31 GMT
Libyan human rights in the spotlight
Colonel Gaddafi of Libya
Gaddafi leads one of the world's most repressive regimes

In its successful campaign to be elected chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Libyan Government has gone to great lengths to reverse its reputation as one of the world's worst violators of its citizens' human rights.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's totalitarian regime came to power in Libya in 1969, since when it has controlled the North African country with an iron fist.

Repressive governments must not be allowed to hijack the UN human rights system

Human Rights Watch
Freedom of expression and independent political activity are severely curtailed, while members of banned groups, including those advocating peaceful means to oppose the state, have been ruthlessly dealt with.

Among the draconian penal laws is Law 71 which states that anyone "who calls for the establishment of any grouping, organisation or association proscribed by law" can be executed.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Colonel Gaddafi's political opponents have been held as prisoners of conscience over the years, the most prominent of whom was Libya's longest-serving "prisoner of conscience", Ahmad al-Zubayr al-Sanoussi.

Mr Sanoussi, accused of plotting a 1970 coup attempt, was finally released in August 2002 having been incarcerated for 31 years, many of those in solitary confinement.

Gaddafi with Zambian President Chiluba
Libya's candidacy was proposed by African leaders
His release came as the regime freed dozens of political prisoners in the run-up to its candidacy to chair the UN human rights commission.

Other high-profile prisoners included Omran al-Turbi, who had been arrested in 1984 along with hundreds of other suspected members an organisation blamed for an attack on Bab al-Aziziya Barracks in Tripoli.

Mr Turbi, a father of two and a dentist by profession, was held without charge for 17 years.

'Grossly unfair'

Despite the much-heralded prisoner releases, which led Colonel Gaddafi to declare recently that there were "no political prisoners left" in his country, human rights monitors remain concerned about the situation there.

For a start, they say, hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, many of them after what are described as "grossly unfair" trials by the so-called People's Court which deals with political trials.

Trials of opponents of the regime have continued, including one against a group of 150 doctors, academics, engineers and other professionals accused of membership of the Libyan Islamic Group.

Amnesty International (AI) says the group is not known to have used or advocated violence in its opposition activities.

Bizarre case

In another case, which the People's Court eventually passed on for criminal prosecution, six Bulgarians and a Palestinian are being charged over the alleged deliberate infection of nearly 400 Libyan children with HIV, the virus which causes Aids.

Pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli
Political activity is tightly controlled
The defendants say they confessed under torture - beatings with electric cables and electric shocks - a claim which Libya has so far failed to investigate fully, as it is required to do as a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture.

This bizarre form of attack, Colonel Gaddafi once suggested, was cooked up by the US or Israeli intelligence services to destabilise Libya - an allegation since dropped by the People's Court.

But the defendants remain under house arrest and have been denied permission by the court to have virology experts testify on their behalf.

Test for UN

Libya prevents any form of independent monitoring of its justice system, despite repeated requests by respected non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But as Tripoli's chairmanship of the UN commission on human rights drew nearer, HRW detected some positive new commitments as part of the Libyan election bid.

These included a declared intention to review the People's Court system, with a view to abolishing it altogether.

Tripoli has also indicated it will finally open its gates to UN investigators and NGOs to monitor the human rights situation.

However, HRW said the country should have been forced to put such measures into practice before it was allowed to chair this year's session of the UN human rights commission.

That way the international community would have been able to exert some leverage on Tripoli, a chance that has now passed.

 VOTE RESULTS
Should Libya chair the UN Human Rights Commission?

Yes
 44.12% 

No
 55.88% 

6437 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

05 Sep 02 | Africa
30 Nov 02 | Country profiles
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