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Don't let Libya off the hook

Don't let Libya off the hook

Published in International Herald Tribune, January 29, 2006

By Kenneth Roth

Tripoli, Libya - As the Libyan government seeks to transcend its international isolation, its greatest challenge may be the way it treats its own people. Slowly, the sources of tension between Tripoli and the West - Lockerbie, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction - are easing in light of Libyan cooperation. Yet despite some positive steps on human rights, the government has yet to take the steps necessary to free civil society and uphold international human rights standards.

That is not to deny that recently there has been some good news from Libya on the human rights front. The notorious People's Courts, which dispatched perceived political opponents to prison or death without due process, were abolished in January 2005. A handful of political prisoners have been released, while others have been granted new trials. The government says it is prosecuting at least 48 security officials on charges of torture and pursuing reforms of its penal code to minimize the death penalty.

Still, Libya remains a closed and tightly controlled society. There is no independent press or civil society, and there are no political groups that are not officially sanctioned. On pain of imprisonment, Libyans are not allowed to criticize the government, its political system, or its leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Torture remains a serious problem, and the Libyan security apparatus is pervasive. Past cases of forced disappearance remain unresolved, as does a 1996 incident in Abu Salim prison, in which guards killed an unknown number of prisoners.

Libya's government justifies political restrictions by referring to its unique political system known as Jamahiriya, or the "state of the masses." Hearing Libyan officials describe this system is a throwback to the early Cold War, when Communist officials offered similar justifications for ignoring human rights.

According to the line that one hears frequently in government offices, Libya represents a unique, advanced system of governance. Better than parliamentary democracy, Libya offers "direct democracy." It holds People's Congresses throughout the country, at which citizens debate issues facing their government and ostensibly make decisions.

Inside these congresses, anything supposedly can be said, but conveniently, the line goes, there is no need for Libyans to express themselves on political matters outside the congresses. Who needs mere "expressive democracy," as Libyan officials disparagingly refer to the right of free expression, when Libyans have direct democracy? "We feel we're beyond that," I was told by an interior ministry official.

Aren't people too fearful of security officers even to criticize the government before a People's Congress, let alone to organize around political issues to make coordinated presentations? "You don't understand Libya," I was told by one security official. "The people have nothing to fear from security because the people are security."

If human rights groups had existed at the time of the French Revolution, I was told during meetings with government officials in Tripoli this week, they would have condemned the novel form of republican government that emerged from monarchial rule. Rather than condemn Libyan restrictions on political expression and organization, human rights groups should recognize them as reflective of Libya's new, unique and superior system of direct democracy.

Take, for example, the case of Fathi al-Jahmi, 64, a former official who decided to test Libya's new commitment to reform. At a People's Congress in 2002, he called for free elections, a free press and the release of political prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Released in March 2004 after international appeals on his behalf, Jahmi immediately gave interviews to the international news media in which he repeated his call for Libya's democratization and called Qaddafi a dictator. The internal security agency arrested him the next day - for his "protection," the head of Libya's internal security agency said. His trial begins next month.

Nettlesome as Jahmi's comments undoubtedly were to a government used to brooking no criticism, they are precisely the kinds of nonviolent views that any government must accept if it purports to call itself a democracy.

Some within the Libyan political elite seem to understand this. A foundation established by Qaddafi's reform-minded son, Seif al-Islam, has called for the release of 131 political prisoners who, it says, pose no threat to the government. So far, only six have been released, on medical grounds.

Eighty-six accused members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been granted a new trial, with a verdict expected on Jan. 31. The fate of these prisoners will be an important test of the government's reformist intents.

Western governments can help advance the reform process in Libya by insisting on respect for human rights. Libya has offered itself as a partner in the "war on terror," but the West should not stay silent about violations because of Libya's cooperation on the security front.

© Scoop Media

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