Libya: Confirmation of sentencing of prisoners of conscience is a step backwards

News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International

AI Index: MDE 19/020/2004 1 December 2004

Libya: Confirmation of sentencing of prisoners of conscience is a step backwards

The decision by the People's Court of Appeal to uphold scores of sentences, including two death sentences, issued today is a new blow to freedom of expression and association in Libya, Amnesty International said.

Death sentences against two university professors, Salem Abu Hanak and Abdullah Ahmed 'Izzedin, handed down at first instance in 2002, were upheld on appeal. According to Libyan law, this latest verdict must now be reviewed by the Supreme Court. If confirmed, it cannot be implemented without the consent of the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies, Libya's highest judicial body.

Some 83 prisoners of conscience, sentenced in the same case in 2002 to prison terms ranging between 10 years and life imprisonment, also had their sentences confirmed. They have no further chance to appeal. A further 66 men, also on trial, had their earlier acquittal confirmed.

"These men should not have been tried in the first place. We are shocked by the decision to uphold the sentences against these prisoners of conscience and call for their immediate and unconditional release," Amnesty International said.

The sentences were reportedly pronounced in absentia after the accused apparently refused to attend today's hearing as a mark of protest. This followed earlier protests in the form of hunger strikes in April and October 2004, calling for an end to their continued detention, among other things. Those on trial were professionals and students, who were arrested in and after June 1998 on suspicion of supporting or sympathizing with the banned Libyan Islamic Group - also known as the Muslim Brothers.

During their visit to Libya in February 2004, Amnesty International delegates had extensive discussions with the Libyan authorities about the case of the Muslim Brothers. In all discussions, it was confirmed that the men had not been charged with any activities relating to the use or advocacy of violence. They faced charges under Law 71 of 1972 banning political parties solely for the peaceful expression of their ideas and for meeting to discuss those ideas with others in secret.

In February 2004, Abdullah Ahmed 'Izzedin told Amnesty International, "I am not against the regime, nor do I have any political aims. I just wanted to work towards reforming society and to making it a better place".

Over the six-and-a-half years of their detention, the rights of those accused were flagrantly violated, even in instances where these rights are guaranteed in Libyan law. They have been cut off from the outside world, denied the right to appoint a lawyer of their own choosing and the right to trial within a reasonable time. Their trial before an exceptional court known to try political cases fell short of international standards for fair trial.

The men were held in incommunicado detention for almost three years. During this period, some of the defendants alleged that they were tortured, including being beaten on the soles of the feet (falaqa), after their arrest by members of the Internal Security Agency. Defendants were also reportedly forced to sign confessions. Since the opening of the appeal in the summer of 2002, it has been repeatedly adjourned, with hearings approximately every three months and reportedly lasting just a few minutes.

Amnesty International welcomes statements by the Libyan authorities since the organization's visit in February, which point towards their intention to increase the protection of human rights, for example by abolishing the death penalty and the People's Court. A draft law to abolish the People's Court is apparently being examined by Libya's local and national legislative bodies.

"It is now time for the authorities to take concrete steps to put into effect those promises in order to achieve a tangible improvement in the lives of all those residing in Libya without delay."

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