Libya: Rights at Risk
Human Rights Watch
September 2, 2008
Despite modest improvements in recent years, Libyans and foreign residents in Libya
continue to suffer from serious violations of human rights. The continued arrests and
incarceration of political prisoners, some of them “disappeared”; the torture of detainees;
the absence of a free press; the ban on independent organizations; and violations of
women’s and foreigners’ rights plague the country as it tries to reintegrate with the
international community. The country is dominated by one leader, who tolerates no
unsanctioned criticism of his rule or Libya’s unique political system.
Human Rights Watch welcomes improved relations between Libya and other
governments, including with the United States, but not at the expense of human rights
and the rule of law. To date, international engagement with the oil-rich country has
focused on counter-terrorism and business ties, and inadequately addressed the lack of
democratic reform and protection of human rights.
Below is a selection of the key human rights issues in Libya, as documented by Human
Rights Watch. The material is based primarily on three visits to Libya since 2005. For
more detailed information, see: http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=mideast&c=libya.
I. Political Prisoners
Scores of individuals are serving long terms in Libyan prisons for engaging in peaceful
political activity, and some have been forcibly “disappeared.” Law 71, described below,
bans independent political activity, and violators can be subject to the death penalty.
Fathi al-Jahmi is Libya’s most well-known political prisoner, and his case is entwined in
Internal security forces first arrested al-Jahmi, 66, in October 2002, after he publicly
criticized Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi and called for free elections, a free press,
and the release of political prisoners. A court sentenced him to five years in prison, but an
appeals court ordered his release in March 2004, after US Senator and now Democratic
Party vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden personally raised the case with al-Qadhafi
during a visit to Tripoli.
President Bush welcomed al-Jahmi’s release. “Earlier today, the Libyan government
released Fathi al-Jahmi,” he said on March 12, 2004. “It’s an encouraging step toward
reform in Libya. You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude
about a lot of things.”
That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to US-funded al-Hurra television in which he
repeated his call for Libya’s democratization. He gave another interview to the station on
March 16, in which he called al-Qadhafi a dictator and said, “all that is left for him to do
is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him.” On
March 25, he told al-Arabiyya television, “I don’t recognize al-Qadhafi as the leader of
The next day, security agents entered al-Jahmi’s Tripoli house and arrested him, his wife,
and their eldest son. The arrest was for their own protection, officials said, due to public
outrage over his comments to the media.
A secret trial began in late 2005. The state apparently charged al-Jahmi with trying to
overthrow the government, insulting al-Qadhafi, and having unauthorized contacts with
foreign officials. The third charge, al-Jahmi told Human Rights Watch, resulted from
conversations he had had with a US diplomat in Tripoli.
In May 2006, the secret court found al-Jahmi mentally unfit for trial and ordered him
detained at a psychiatric hospital. Al-Jahmi’s family was not told of the decision, or of al-
Jahmi’s whereabouts during the roughly one year he spent at the hospital.
Al-Jahmi’s physical health significantly declined in the psychiatric hospital, and in July
2007 the authorities transferred him to the state-run Tripoli Medical Center, where he
remained under guard. Al-Jahmi suffers from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
In March 2008, the Qadhafi Development Foundation, a quasi-governmental organization
run by Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, facilitated a trip by Human Rights
Watch and Physicians for Human Rights to al-Jahmi in the Tripoli Medical Center.
According to al-Jahmi, during the roughly one year of incommunicado detention in the
psychiatric hospital, the authorities denied him access to a doctor and needed
On March 13, Dr. Scott Allen, an adviser to Physicians for Human Rights and co-director
of the Brown University Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, conducted a
thorough medical examination of al-Jahmi, consulted with his doctor, and reviewed his
medical records. Dr. Allen concluded that al-Jahmi’s condition had improved in recent
months since his transfer to the Tripoli Medical Center, but that negligent care during his
time at the psychiatric hospital, and perhaps before, had contributed to a serious
deterioration of al-Jahmi’s health. According to al-Jahmi’s doctor, al-Jahmi was
experiencing severe heart failure at the time of his transfer to the Tripoli Medical Center.
As of September 1, Al-Jahmi remained under guard at the Tripoli Medical Center. The
last family visit was in early July.
Idris Boufayed Group
In February 2007, Libyan security agents in Tripoli arrested 14 organizers of a planned
political demonstration. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, none of the men had used
or were advocating the use of violence. The demonstration was intended to commemorate
the anniversary of a demonstration one year before in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest
city, in which 11 protesters died during clashes with police.
On May 27, 2008, the authorities released one of the men, Jum`a Boufayed, who had
been missing since his arrest. A second man, `Adil Humaid, was released on June 10. A
third man, `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, has been “disappeared” since his arrest in
On June 10, 2008, a state security court sentenced the remaining 11 men to prison terms
ranging from 6 to 25 years. The court found them guilty of planning to overthrow the
government and meeting with an official from a foreign government, apparently a US
embassy official in Tripoli. They were acquitted on the charge of possessing arms.
The state security court, which was created in August 2007 to handle political cases, is
reportedly located inside Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, a facility run by Libya’s Internal
The main organizer of the planned demonstration, Idris Boufayed, who lived in
Switzerland for 16 years before returning to Libya in November 2006, received a 25 year
sentence. He reportedly suffers from advanced lung cancer. On May 28, 2008, a progovernment
newspaper in Libya reported that an official “medical committee” had
consented to Boufayed’s release on medical grounds, but to Human Rights Watch’s
knowledge he remains in prison as of September 1, 2008.
The court sentenced another member of the group, Jamal al-Haji, a writer who holds
Danish citizenship, to 12 years. Libyan authorities have refused to recognize al-Haji’s
Danish citizenship or respond to Danish government requests to visit him, in violation of
Libya’s obligations under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. A few
days before his arrest, Al-Haji had published an article calling for “freedom, democracy,
a constitutional state, and law” in Libya.
II. Death in Custody of Returnee from Sweden
Mohammed Adel Abu Ali, a Libyan citizen whose asylum claim was rejected by the
Swedish Migration Board, was transported from Sweden to Libya on May 6, 2008.
Libyan authorities took him into custody upon his arrival. According to news reports and
Libyan human rights groups, on May 22 the Libyan authorities informed Abu Ali’s
family that he had died, and asked relatives to claim the body. The rights groups say
Libyan authorities tortured him in detention.
On July 4, the Swedish Migration Board publicly confirmed that Abu Ali had died in
Libyan custody. It stated that Sweden had suspended all deportations to Libya until the
conclusion of an investigation into the circumstances around Abu Ali’s deportation and
Abu Ali first applied for asylum in Sweden on November 20, 2003. After receiving his
final rejection on September 8, 2005, he fled to the United Kingdom, according to a
lawyer who later represented him. British authorities returned Abu Ali to Sweden, where
authorities took him into custody on January 14, 2008, before deporting him back to
Torture is prohibited under Libyan law, its commission is a criminal offense, and the
government has repeatedly claimed that it investigates and prosecutes cases in which
torture against detainees is alleged. Nevertheless, reports of torture and maltreatment in
detention are consistent and credible, including in the recent case of Mohammed Adel
Abu Ali (see above), who died in custody.
During Human Rights Watch’s research in Libya in April-May 2005, 15 out of 32
prisoners interviewed in five different detention facilities said they had been tortured
during interrogation. They said interrogators had subjected them to electric shocks, hung
them from walls, and beat them with clubs and wooden sticks. Confessions extracted
through torture were admitted as evidence against them in court.
The US government has recognized torture as a serious concern. According to the State
Department’s 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, methods of torture in
chaining prisoners to a wall for hours; clubbing; applying electric shock;
applying corkscrews to the back; pouring lemon juice in open wounds;
breaking fingers and allowing the joints to heal without medical care;
suffocating with plastic bags; depriving detainees of sleep, food, and
water; hanging by the wrists; suspending from a pole inserted between the
knees and elbows; burning with cigarettes; threatening with dog attacks;
and beatings on the soles of the feet.
The most prominent case involved the six foreign healthcare workers – 5 Bulgarians and
one Palestinian – who were arrested in 1999 and sentenced to death for purposefully
infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. They were released in July 2007
following a deal with the European Union to compensate the victims’ families.
During interviews in Tripoli’s Jdeida prison in May 2005, four of the six foreign
healthcare workers told Human Rights Watch that they had confessed after enduring
torture, including sexual assault. On August 10, 2007, in an interview on al-Jazeera, Seif
al-Islam al-Qadhafi said that the healthcare workers had been physically abused. The
torture of these foreign workers is the only case in which the authorities are known to
have conducted a criminal investigation into torture, but the ten Libyan security officials
charged with torturing the workers were acquitted in June 2005.
IV. Guantanamo Returns
In 2006 and 2007, the US government returned two Libyan citizens from the
Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Libya. Both were detained upon return and held in
custody without charge and apparently without access to lawyers. According to the US
government, the Libyan authorities gave assurances of humane treatment prior to the
On or around December 17, 2006, the US returned Muhammad Abdallah Mansur al-Rimi
(aka Muhammad Abdullah Mansour al-Futury or Abdesalam Safrani), age 40, after four
years in detention at Guantanamo Bay. The US alleged that al-Rimi was a member of the
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an armed group dedicated to overthrowing Mu`ammar
al-Qadhafi. Al-Rimi denied the charges but told his Guantanamo review tribunal: “I have
a problem with the Libyan government and it is a long story.”
According to the Qadhafi Development Foundation, al-Rimi was treated for tuberculosis
upon return. Shortly after his return, a foundation official said the Libyan authorities did
not want al-Rimi, and he would "go back to his family soon." As of January 2008, he was
still in detention. Human Rights Watch has received no news of his release since that
Despite repeated requests, the Libyan government has failed to provide Human Rights
Watch any information about the location of al-Rimi. The US State Department,
however, told Human Rights Watch in January 2008 that US officials had visited al-Rimi
on two occasions: in August 2007 and on December 25, 2007. Al-Rimi said Libyan
security forces were detaining him but were treating him well, the State Department said,
including medical treatment for an arm injury he sustained during a scuffle with guards at
Guantanamo. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the claim, and it is unknown
whether US officials have conducted subsequent visits.
The December meeting was convened in an office of the state security services, and not
in the place of al-Rimi’s detention. The meeting took place in the presence of Libyan
officials and an official from the Qadhafi Development Foundation. Al-Rimi did not
know the charges against him, and he apparently had not seen a lawyer since his return.
He had received no family visits, he reportedly said.
A January 2, 2008, statement from the Qadhafi Development Foundation said the
organization had visited al-Rimi on December 25, 2007, and that he was receiving
medical treatment for his injured arm.
The second returnee was Sofian Ibrahim Hamad Hamoodah, 49, whom the US sent back
on or around September 30, 2007, after 5 years in Guantanamo Bay. As with al-Rimi, the
Libyan authorities have failed to provide Human Rights Watch with information about
his whereabouts or why he is being held.
According to the State Department, US officials first visited Hamoodah on December 25,
2007. As with al-Rimi, as of January 2008, security forces were holding him on unknown
charges and apparently without access to a lawyer, but he did not complain of
maltreatment. He was scheduled to receive a family visit on December 27, he told the US
officials. Human Rights Watch has no news of his subsequent release.
The Qadhafi Development Foundation statement said it also visited Hamoodah on
December 25, and that he was subsequently granted a family visit. The Foundation was
providing a Tripoli apartment for Hamoodah’s family, the statement said.
In April 2007, the US wanted to return a third Libyan from Guantanamo, Abdul Ra’ouf
al-Qassim, but they took him off the transfer list after protests from members of Congress
and human rights groups.
On or around December 19, 2007, the US released a fourth Libyan from Guantanamo
Bay, Omar Deghayes, 38, but sent him to the UK, where he has refugee status. The UK
authorities initially detained him but then released him on bail. Deghayes faces an
extradition request from Spain, where he could face terrorism charges.
Human Rights Watch has documented how diplomatic assurances from a state where
torture and ill-treatment are routine do not provide an effective safeguard against abuse
(see http://hrw.org/reports/2005/eca0405/ and
http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/ecaqna1106/). In two reports, the organization
documented the abuse of former detainees from Guantanamo Bay and due process
violations upon return, despite diplomatic assurances of humane treatment (see
The United States continues to hold 8 Libyan citizens at Guantanamo Bay.
V. Law 71
Law 71 bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of
the al-Fateh Revolution, which brought Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi to power in 1969. Article
3 of the law imposes the death penalty on those who form, join or support such groups.
Over the years, Libyan authorities have imprisoned hundreds of people for violating this
law, and sentenced some to death.
VI. Death Penalty
For more than three years, Libya has said that legal experts are drafting new penal and
criminal procedure codes. In 2005 the Libyan Secretary of Justice told Human Rights
Watch that, in the new penal code, the death penalty “will be reduced to the greatest
possible extent,” although it will remain for serious crimes, such as terrorism. As of
September 1, 2008, the government has not introduced a new penal code or code of
criminal procedure. Many of the current articles impose death for activities that should be
protected under the rights to free expression and assembly.
• Article 166 of the penal code imposes the death penalty on anyone who talks to or
conspires with a foreign official to provoke or contribute to an attack against
• Article 206 imposes the death penalty on those who call “for the establishment of
any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law,” and on those who
belong to or support such an organization.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances due to its inherent
cruel and inhumane nature.
VII. Freedom of Association and Freedom of Expression
Libya has no independent nongovernmental organizations. Law 19, “On Associations,”
requires a political body to approve all such organizations and does not allow appeals of
Freedom of expression is severely curtailed. Article 178 of the penal code orders life
imprisonment for the dissemination of information considered to “tarnish [the country’s]
reputation or undermine confidence in it abroad.” Negative comments about al-Qadhafi
are strictly punished, and self-censorship is rife. Uncensored news is available via
satellite television and Libyan websites based abroad, which the government occasionally
The exception to these rules are organizations run by Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, who has
criticized the lack of representative government and called for a free press. His quasiofficial
Qadhafi Development Foundation helped negotiate the release of the six foreign
healthcare workers in 2007. In August 2007, his al-Ghad company launched Libya’s first
private newspapers and television station, which have at times expressed gentle criticism
of government officials and policy.