A team from the organization Human Rights Watch recently returned from its first visit to Libya and says the North African country has taken important steps to improve its human-rights image.  But it said serious problems remain, including the imprisonment of political prisoners and use of violence against them.

Human Rights Watch's first mission to Libya lasted three weeks.  It showed that the Libyan government really is trying to make an effort to open up.

It took the organization some time to organize the visit.  But once the Human Rights Watch team arrived in Tripoli the Libyan authorities came through on their promises.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch said the Libyan government granted access. 

"We were able to visit five prisons and we were able to take to talk to whatever, whomever prisoner we wanted to talk to in complete privacy,? she said.  ?We had access to all levels of government officials and we were allowed to talk with these government officials as well privately." 

Ms. Whitson said there was clearly willingness by the Libyan government to have a degree of openness and transparency. The Human Rights Watch team was able to visit juvenile detention centers, police stations and immigration detention centers.

Interviews were held with prisoners and staff and Human Rights Watch believes there was no one taping or listening in to what was been asked or said.

"It would be hard to bug all the situations and all the places,? she noted.  ?These are not very high-tech centers, especially when they did not know who we would be talking to or where we were going to be talking to them.  In many cases we talked in open courtyards, in open spaces."

Ms. Whitson said there were no complaints about the conditions in prisons.  But there are many reports of confessions obtained from prisoners under torture and the use of violence during interrogations.

Human Rights Watch says that despite the progress there are serious problems that must be addressed.  There are restrictions on freedom of expression and association and political prisoners are still imprisoned.

"Libyan law criminalizes certain sorts of criticism of the government and criticism of the revolution and criticism of Gaddafi,? she explained.  ?Even on the statute books these things are unlawful.  So people who do in fact criticize the leader or the revolution or the political system do find themselves in jail."

Colonel Muamar Gaddafi has run Libya since leading a 1969 revolution.  As part of efforts to clean up its rogue image, last year the government closed the People's Court, which tried political cases without due-process guarantees.

The government is also reviewing its criminal code and has said it plans to greatly reduce use of the death penalty.  The revised Code is expected to be presented to Libya's Basic People's Congresses for debate by the end of the year.