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Human Rights Watch:  Libya's Record Still Bad, but Improving

Human Rights Watch has issued a report on its first-ever visit to Libya. The group says as Libya emerges from years of international isolation, human rights have slightly improved, but serious problems remain.

Human Rights Watch says Libya has made the first few steps on the road to reform, but it still has a long way to go before it meets international standards for human rights.

The group's report, based on its first-ever fact-finding trip to Libya, said despite some improvements, the government still imprisons its critics, sometimes tortures them, and severely restricts freedom of expression.

Libya has been anxious to rehabilitate its image and rejoin the international community after decades of isolation. It has been courting investment in its oil sector. Diplomatic relations with Washington and other Western governments have been thawing.

Washington-based researcher Fred Abrahams urged the West not to let Libya's oil wealth and cooperation in the war on terrorism blind them to the country's poor human rights record.

"But we do believe that the United States government and Western governments that are improving ties with Libya, these governments should not use Libya's cooperation in the war against terror to justify human rights abuses," he said. "In other words, we believe that Washington in particular, but also European governments, should be critical, be more critical of Libya's human rights record, and not be silent only because they are a partner in this international campaign."

Human Rights Watch researchers spent three weeks in Libya last year, interviewing a number of senior government officials and 32 political prisoners. The group made a second trip to Libya this week to present their findings.

Its report says Libya has taken several important steps to improve human rights. Abrahams acknowledges that some of those reforms are probably window dressing (done to create a favorable impression) intended to improve its international image, but he says others appear to be genuine.

"I will say this. Something is changing in Libya," he said. "Our visit yesterday and in the days before was a new experience for us and for the government. Again, we disagreed on many substantive points, but we talked and they listened, and we listened. And in the context of Libya, closed for more than three decades, I consider that a very positive step.

The report notes that Libya last year shut down the People's Court, which it says was notorious for biased trials and politically motivated decisions.

But overall, the report concludes that the human rights situation in Libya is still dire.

"But please do not misunderstand me, there are very serious human rights problems in Libya today," explained Fred Abrahams. "Although some political prisoners have been released, many, many - perhaps hundreds, we don't know exactly - remain in prison."

The report says some prisoners and detainees give credible accounts of torture at the hands of security forces, even though Libya has outlawed torture and claims to prosecute officers accused of using it.

Human Rights Watch says many prisoners are jailed under the restrictive Law 71, which bans any political activity opposed to the ideals of the 1969 rebellion that brought President Muammar Gadhafi to power.

The group urged Libya to free anyone imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views.

When a team from Human Rights Watch went to Tripoli this week to present their findings to the Libyan government, they were told that 14 political prisoners had been freed.