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Libya continues to trample on human rights, group says

CAIRO, Egypt—A leading human rights organization warned Wednesday that Libya's cooperation in the international war on terror and other recent overtures to the West shouldn't overshadow the country's continued use of intimidation and torture to stifle political expression at home.

The country Moammar Gadhafi has ruled for nearly three decades is still plagued by severe human rights abuses, despite Libya's efforts to shed its pariah status by renouncing weapons of mass destruction, paying compensation to victims of Libyan terrorists and working closely with the United States and Britain to prevent attacks, according to an 80-page report prepared by Human Rights Watch.

The report praised the Libyan government for releasing 14 political prisoners and prosecuting security officials accused of abuse, but it said the government persists in illegally jailing dissidents and using torture to extract confessions. Opposition parties, independent media and civic groups are all banned, and "the fear among ordinary Libyan citizens was palpable and intense," according to the report.

The findings came from a three-week visit to Libya in spring 2005.

"Washington in particular, but also European governments, should be more critical of Libya's human rights record and not be silent only because they are a partner in this international campaign," Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told journalists in Cairo.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Libya embarked on an aggressive push to persuade the Bush administration to lift economic sanctions and to remove it from a list of states that sponsor terrorism. Gadhafi established a $2.7 billion fund to compensate the families of terror victims, particularly those killed in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. In addition, Libya abandoned its nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and allowed independent monitors to tour weapons sites.

President Bush signed an executive order in 2004 lifting economic sanctions against Libya. The United States also reversed a long-standing travel ban to Libya for American citizens, and talks are in progress to reopen a U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. For now, however, Libya remains on the State Department's terror watch list.

The Human Rights Watch report highlighted several examples of abuse:

_Fathi al-Jahmi, 64, Libya's most prominent dissident, has been held incommunicado without trial since March 2004, when he made scathing comments about Gadhafi to the international media. He complained that he was denied medical care, family visits and representation by a non-Libyan attorney. The Libyan government promised Human Rights Watch "a fair trial" for al-Jahmi.

_Eighty-six members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group calling for change, have been in prison since 1998. Two of the leaders were originally sentenced to death. In October 2005, a Libyan court granted a retrial, though the government has postponed the trial date at least three times.

_A new trial also is scheduled for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were all sentenced to death for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus in 1999. Four of the six detainees told the visiting rights workers that they were tortured into confessing after receiving electric shocks, blows to their bodies with cables and sticks, and beatings on the soles of their feet.

M.F. Zayan, a 65-year-old Libyan opposition activist who lives in London, said the report showed cracks in the regime he fled in 1977 after spending nearly a year in prison. He said the United States is easing the pressure on Libya out of its own interests—namely, oil and the war on terror—and that ordinary Libyans have yet to reap the benefits of a regime in transition.

"When you're dealing with a person, you can change his mind. When you're dealing with a prophet, you can't," Zayan said. "That's what Gadhafi considers himself—a prophet."

Libyan government officials didn't immediately respond to e-mail requests for comment on the report.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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