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Libya: HRW Says Conditional Engagement Could Bring Human-Rights Improvements

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (right) with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Tripoli one day after the release of the Bulgarian medics (file photo) (AFP) July 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has won international praise and favors after the release of six Bulgarian medics --> on July 24 after an eight-year incarceration. The medics had been convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV and were serving life sentences.

The European Union announced a "full normalization" of ties with Tripoli, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Libya the next day, signing a military-industrial partnership agreement with Qaddafi.

However, human rights groups and activists analysts warn that Qaddafi's about-face could be just an opportunistic move, and point to continued violations of human rights in Libya, where torture and political oppression are the norm, and an unknown number of political prisoners remain incarcerated indefinitely. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc asked Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch (HRW) whether he believes normalizing relations with Qaddafi will help improve the situation inside Libya.

RFE/RL: The long-delayed release of the six Bulgarian medics was hailed as a success for EU diplomacy, and especially for France. However, to some this was a classical hostage situation. While the medics' release brings an indisputably happy ending to their ordeal, question marks remain about what the Europeans offered in exchange. Did they turn a blind eye to Libya's human-rights record?

Reed Brody: Well, I think it's true. These people were hostages, but their release should make us think about the unanswered questions in Libya. The Bulgarian nurses were, in a sense, the tip of the iceberg. There are Libyans who are being held in prison for political reasons after unfair trials. If anything, this case highlighted and called attention to the arbitrariness of the Libyan justice system and to the lack of freedom in Libya. We're obviously very happy that the long ordeal of these nurses and the Palestinian doctor has been brought to an end. In fact, it's good that the international community is engaging with Libya, but they cannot give Libya a blank check. I think this is an opportunity to focus on the lack of human rights, the lack of liberty, the lack of freedom in Libya, and to make improvements in those areas a condition for full engagement.

RFE/RL: Has there been any improvement in Libya's human-rights record recently?

Brody: Yes, there have been steps forward in Libya. Most of the political detainees were released a year and a half ago. Many -- or some of the top-most notable critics and dissidents -- remain in prison, but there were many releases. There have been steps toward greater openness in the Libyan society. But it's still illegal to criticize the Green Book [which outlines Qaddafi's views on democracy and his political philosophy]. People can still be punished by up to death for that kind of opposition. There are no political parties in Libya. There is no free press in Libya. So, there have been steps forward, but there is a long way still to go.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch (pictured in Senegal in 2005) says there needs to be some accountability for Libya'a abuses of the past (courtesy photo)

RFE/RL: Is there any accurate record on how many political prisoners are still in Libyan prisons?

Brody: It's hard to know, but some of the most important critics are still behind bars. As Libya decided to engage and open to the international community, there have been a number of positive developments. Amnesty International three years ago made its first visit to Libya. Human Rights Watch, a year and a half ago, made its first visit to Libya. Just after the HRW visit, some 160 prisoners were released, and these were seen as encouraging signs of Libya's desire to become a respectable player in the international community, and these kind of steps should be encouraged. But obviously, there's a long way still to go.

RFE/RL: European Union officials have spoken about a full normalization of relations with Libya. After all the crimes perpetrated by the Libyan regime over the past decades, is it wise to give Qaddafi a clean slate, a fresh start? Are there credible signs that the about-face Qaddafi has pulled recently is sincere and not prompted by fear?

Brody: The condition for a full partnership with Libya has to be an opening up of the political system. There needs to be some accountability for the abuses of the past. We also need to see some recognition of the human rights of the Libyans themselves, people who continue to be wrongly imprisoned. There are serious issues as well relating to the treatment of sub-Saharan Africans in Libya -- black Africans who have been systematically mistreated in Libya. There have been numerous waves of violence against black African migrant workers in Libya.

RFE/RL: What would be the best approach for the international community in Libya's case?

Brody: Engagement -- conditional engagement -- relations gradually improving as Libya gradually improves its human rights situation. No blank checks. It's clearly important for the Libyan people and for the international community to engage, but [we should make sure] to condition that engagement and require progress from the Libyan side, require concrete improvements, establish human rights benchmarks in terms of political freedoms, in terms of political prisoners, in terms of openness, in terms of judicial reform, and use those benchmarks to determine how far -- how great the embrace should be.

RFE/RL: Would normalizing relations with Libya too soon pose any risk for the European Union?

Brody: Let's remember that there are degrees of normalization, and that the EU traditionally conditions different aspects of its relations with countries. This ranges from sanctions -- such as the sanctions that are now, for instance, [imposed] on Uzbekistan, to the suspension of different parts of agreements, as is the case, for instance, with Russia. It's one thing to have normal relations, it's another thing to have full and unfettered relations.