Blair visit to Libya brings little hope to dissidents on Death Row

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The Independent Online

The historic handshake between Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Tony Blair earlier this week will have done little to lift the spirits of Dr Salem Abu Hanak.

For the past two years the former Salford University student has been sitting in a jail in Tripoli awaiting execution after being sentenced to death for belonging to an organisation campaigning for better rights for ordinary Libyans.

Since his arrest and detention there have been numerous calls from the international community for his release. All have fallen on deaf ears.

Dr Hanak, 47, who spent five years travelling and studying in Britain in the late 1980s, is one of 90 academics, professionals and students still held in Tripoli's infamous Abu Salim prison after being convicted by the Libyan People's Court for membership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr Hanak's appeal is expected next month. But no one holds out much hope for early release or a reprieve.

"The presiding judge on the appeal court, Honsi al Whaishi, is a thug and member of the Revolutionary Committee that executed students in the 1970s," says the British-based Libyan political commentator Ashur Shamis, who has met one of Dr Hanak's sons. "Unsurprisingly, the family are very upset and want him released now."

Amnesty International has now joined the family's call for an end to the detention of Dr Hanak and another academic, Dr Abdullah Ahmed Izzedin, who were both sentenced to death on 16 February 2002.

At the same trial 73 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood received life sentences and 11 were jailed for 10 years.

Steve Ballinger, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said yesterday: "While Tony Blair shook hands with Colonel Gaddafi this week, Abdullah Ahmed Izzedin and Salem Abu Hanak sat in prison, waiting to be executed. Their crime was to be members of a banned political party.

"Their plight illustrates the gross violations of human rights in Libya, where political opponents are jailed and reports of torture and unfair trials are widespread. International leaders like Tony Blair have a responsibility to raise questions about these abuses: Libyan nationals are prevented from doing so themselves."

Salem Abu Hanak was teaching chemistry at the University of Qar Younes in Benghazi when he first heard Colonel Gaddafi call for an end to the death penalty in 1988. Like many members of the professional classes who had been peacefully campaigning for improved civil rights he welcomed the colonel's recognition that capital punishment could no longer be tolerated in a modern Libya.

His subsequent arrest and death sentence cruelly confirmed what he already suspected - that Colonel Gaddafi's words do not always match his deeds. Indeed, the colonel's pronouncements appear to be consistently disregarded in practice. In 2001, death sentences were imposed on at least eight people convicted of criminal charges. A year later Dr Hanak and Dr Izzedin were also sentenced to death. Many Libyan dissidents are now cynical about what can really be achieved by a single visit by a British prime minister.

Dr Hanak was born and educated in Benghazi and is married with five children, one of whom is studying in Britain.

He himself graduated with a chemistry degree from Garyounis University in 1980 and afterwards travelled to Britain, where he studied for a Masters and PhD in chemistry at Salford University.

Yesterday a spokesman for Salford University said they were "concerned" to learn of Dr Hanak's imprisonment.

In 1991 he returned to Libya where he joined the University of Qar Younes and was promoted to be head of the chemistry department at the faculty of science. At around the same time he started to play a more active role in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is renowned for its peaceful campaigning and has never been reported to have used or advocated violence.

But in June 1998 the Libyan authorities decided to purge the Brotherhood and Dr Hanak was one of 150 members rounded up by the police.

Some of their families suspect they have been tortured into making false confessions.

Libya has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In the 1970s dozens of Libyan dissidents, some living abroad, "disappeared", never to be seen again.

Last year the US State Department reported that torture practices included "clubbing, setting dogs on prisoners, electric shock, suffocation by plastic bags and pouring lemon juice into open wounds".

An Amnesty International delegation returned last month from Libya where it was able to establish that neither Dr Hanak nor Dr Izzedin were "convicted of any activities relating to the use or advocacy of violence".

All 90 of those detained are reportedly charged under a Libyan law which bans any form of group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fatih Revolution of 1 September 1969.

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