Human rights organizations fear three journalists in Liberia who were arrested last month may have been tortured to death. The three worked for a newspaper that was known for criticizing the government of President Charles Taylor. Concern for the journalists' safety has been mounting since the government refused to bring the men out in public during court proceedings.

Since the arrest of newspaper editor Hassan Bility and two of his colleagues on June 24, Liberian officials have consistently said the men are alive. Liberia's information minister, Reginald Goodridge, on Wednesday told VOA the men are in prison and are cooperating with investigators.

The government of President Charles Taylor accuses the Mr. Bility and the others of working as operatives of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). The government charges the journalists were plotting with LURD to assassinate President Taylor.

LURD has been launching hit-and-run attacks across much of the country in recent months. Its aim is to oust Mr. Taylor, himself a former rebel. LURD leaders say Mr. Taylor has failed to improve living conditions in the country following a devastating eight year civil war.

Mr. Bility is the editor of the Monrovia newspaper The Analyst, which is known for its scathing commentaries about the Taylor government. Police had shut down the newspaper earlier this year, but the government later allowed it to resume printing.

The information minister on Wednesday said the government considers the jailed journalists terrorists and their case is being treated as a military matter, not a criminal one. The men, he said, are being held as unlawful combatants and not as civilians. None has been presented in court.

The Liberian Press Union's secretary general, Malcolm Joseph, says his group is calling on the government to respect the three journalists' rights as citizens. "[Mr.] Bility was a member of the union and we know him as a journalist," he said. "We as a union, we in no way condone any acts that would destabilize this government. What we are saying is that he should be given his day in court to prove whether he is innocent or whether he is guilty and the government must be in a position to provide evidence. That is what we are saying. We are saying that justice must prevail. He must be given a speedy trial. Our position is that Mr. Bility must be taken to court and given due process."

Human rights advocacy groups, including London-based Amnesty International, on Tuesday said they fear that Mr. Bility and his colleagues may have died as a result of torture.

"The fact is that no one has been able to see them or hear from them," said Aloysius Toe, who is with the National Center for Human Rights of Liberia in Monrovia. "The people at the security agencies, all of them have denied having them in their custody. All efforts, all attempts to talk to them, to see them, to know how they're doing, have not been successful."

Advocates last week served a writ of habeas corpus against the government, demanding that it produce the living bodies of Hassan Bility and the other two journalists.

Liberia remains under a state of emergency declared by President Taylor in February, when the government reported that rebel forces were nearing the capital.

Human rights advocates have alleged that security forces have used the state of emergency as a pretext to harass journalists and political opponents.