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Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 10:21 UK

Is Libya serious about reform?

Libyan demonstrators hold pictures of Colonel Gaddaffi
"Opposing the ideology of the revolution" carries long prison terms in Libya

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent

The Libyan dissident Jamal al-Haggi was standing on a street corner in the capital Tripoli, glancing nervously left and right, when I met him in September 2009.

We pulled over, to blaring horns, and he hopped into the back of our taxi.

He was meeting us this way because, according to him, state security officers would be in our hotel lobby and could arrest everyone before the camera had even started rolling.

And, he went on, doing the interview at his house would expose both his family and even his neighbours to unnecessary risk.

"Insulting public officials" or "opposing the ideology of the revolution" are criminal offences that could result in a 25-year jail sentence in Libya.

'Nothing else to lose'

Libya map

Mr Haggi said he was prepared to go to jail again, but did not want to get anyone else into trouble.

A small, neat man and an accountant by profession, he wanted to tell us about the "real Libya".

In his view, this was a place strikingly at odds with the parades, posters and martial bombast of the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, the event we were in Tripoli to cover last September.

So we conducted our discussion in the back of a taxi as it drove through the late-night Tripoli traffic.

"Yes it is dangerous, I am not safe," he said.

"But I am not afraid. There is nothing else to lose."

To the surprise of the Human Rights Watch campaigners who had helped us set up this meeting, Mr Haggi was not arrested immediately after our broadcast.

Some took this as evidence that moderates within the regime were gaining the upper hand, a sign of more freedoms to come for ordinary Libyans.

Torture complaints

That was in September 2009.

But on Wednesday in Libya's State Security Court, Mr Haggi will find out if he is due for another spell in prison.

Saif ul-Islam Gaddaffi
One of Col Gaddaffi's sons runs Libya's Human Rights Society

He is not being prosecuted for having spoken to the BBC but for having written, in May 2009, a five-page letter of complaint to the Libyan justice secretary in which he claimed he had been tortured during his last stay in prison.

The authorities chose to do nothing about that immediately.

But he was arrested more than six months later, in December 2009.

The arrest came after his public meeting with international rights bodies Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in Tripoli and, of course, after his BBC interview was broadcast in September 2009.

Human rights campaigners believe Mr Haggi may have been singled out because of his high profile.

His lawyers say the office of the Libyan prosecutor told the court it had investigated the allegations of torture.

Since they were untrue, said the prosecutor, he was guilty of slandering public officials.

Specifically, Mr Haggi is charged with "insulting judicial authorities," which under the Libyan penal code carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

Liberal son

"Jamal al-Haggi expressed his faith in the Libyan justice system by submitting a formal complaint," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.

"To arrest him and then try him before an unfair court makes a mockery of that system."

A recommendation for Libya's State Security Court to be abolished was made in December 2009 in the first annual report of the Human Rights Society of the Gaddafi Foundation.

The Human Rights Society is run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's sons - and believed to be among those who want to liberalise the country.

His intervention is thought to have helped free Mr Haggi from his last jail term.

There is a great deal of talk about "reform" in Libya but it is hard to know how genuine such reform is.

One measure of that will be the verdict - and perhaps the length of the jail sentence - handed down to Mr Haggi by the State Security Court.



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