Libyan political prisoner may face death penalty
Libya, Politics, 5/8/2006
Libya's most prominent political prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, faces a possible death sentence for slandering Libyan leader Muammar al-Qathafi and talking with a foreign official, who may be a US diplomat, Human Rights Watch said last week.
"The Libyan government is taking great pains to introduce a democratic face to the world," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. "But it appears willing to execute people for criticizing its leader or talking with a foreign official, which shows how far it has to go." Libyan state security has detained Jahmi for more than two years. According to the Libyan government, Jahmi's trial began in late 2005, but the authorities have not made the charges known. His court-appointed lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Jahmi faces counts under article 206 of the penal code, among other offenses, but the lawyer did not know the details.
Article 206 of the penal code 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 visited Jahmi in May 2005 in a special detention facility in Tripoli. He said then that he faced charges on three counts under articles 166 and 167 of the penal code: trying to overthrow the government; insulting al-Qathafi; and contacting foreign authorities. The third charge, he said, is due to conversations he had with a US diplomat in Tripoli.
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 Libya. Article 167 orders up to life in prison for conspiring with a foreign official to harm Libya's military, political or diplomatic position.
Internal security forces first arrested Jahmi, aged 64, on October 19, 2002, after he criticized the government and Qathafi, calling for the abolition of Qathafi's Green Book, free elections in Libya, a free press, and the release of political prisoners. A court sentenced him to five years in prison.
On March 1, 2004, US Senator Joseph Biden met Qathafi and called for Jahmi's release. Nine days later, an appeals court gave Jahmi a suspended sentence of one year and ordered his release on March 12.
That same day, al-Jahmi gave an interview to the 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 Qathafi 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 Qathafi as the leader of Libya." The next day, security agents entered Jahmi's Tripoli house and arrested him, his wife, Fawzi, and their eldest son, Mohamed. The Internal Security Agency detained them in an undisclosed location for six months, without access to relatives or lawyers. On September 23, the authorities released Jahmi's son and they released his wife on November 4.
According to the head of Libya's Internal Security Agency, Col. Tohamy Khaled, the agency was holding Jahmi in a special facility for his own safety and because he is "mentally deranged." He told Human Rights Watch, "I'm responsible for his health care, his detention, and I want to say this: if this man was not detained, because he provoked people, they could have attacked him in his home. Therefore, he is facing trial... He's in special detention because he's mentally disturbed and we're worried he will cause a problem for us." The Libyan government has repeatedly assured Human Rights Watch that Jahmi receives appropriate medical care and regular family visits.
According to Jahmi's family, however, the government forbade relatives to visit between June 2005 and April 2006. "His son finally got to see him for 15 minutes on April 5, in the presence of state security," said al-Jahmi's brother Mohamed al-Jahmi, who lives in the United States. "Fathi lost a lot of weight and we are worried about his health in this isolated detention." Jahmi has requested an international lawyer, he said.
On March 2, 2006, the Libyan government pardoned 132 political prisoners. "The Libyan government has shown some willingness to improve human rights in recent years," Whitson said. "I hope they will continue the trend and let Fathi al-Jahmi go."
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