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Libya still jailing dissenters, says Human Rights Watch

Libya is still imprisoning people for their political views, years after committing itself to reform, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The group said that there had been limited improvements but Libya's human rights record remained out of step with the image of change it had presented since leader Muammar Gaddafi brought the country out of international isolation.

"Over the past decade Libya dramatically transformed its international status from a pariah state," said the report, which was entitled 'Truth and Justice Can't Wait'.

"Yet ... an essentially repressive legal framework remains in place, as does the ability of government security forces to act with impunity against dissent."

HRW noted the contribution of Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, the country's second most powerful figure and a leading voice for reform, in pushing through some changes.

But more and faster reform was needed, it said. The report, compiled from interviews with prisoners and their families, lawyers, and Libyan officials, highlighted the following areas of concern:

* The authorities have not yet published a thorough account of the June 1996 killings at Abu Salim prison, in which over 1,000 prisoners were shot. The results of an investigation promised by the authorities have never been made public and those responsible have not been identified, HRW said.

* The report said that Libyan law still severely curtailed free speech. However, some journalists were now able to criticise some sections of the government - though not Gaddafi - in a way they would never have dared to do before.

* Hundreds of people are being kept in prison even though they have finished their sentences or been acquitted by the courts, the report said. It said they were being held in two prisons run by the Internal Security Agency, and that inmates there also included dissidents imprisoned after unfair trials.

* Political parties are illegal and there are no independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), according to HRW. A group of lawyers and journalists who tried to set up NGOs gave up after one of the lawyers was abducted, the report said.

HRW said it planned to launch the report at a news conference on Saturday in the Libyan capital - a first in a country that has in the past allowed only limited access to outsiders scrutinising its rights record.

Libya was for decades under international sanctions over its banned weapons programmes and support for militant groups. It has now renounced those policies and is being courted by foreign governments and investors.

Energy firms including BP, ExxonMobil and ENI have invested billions of dollars in Libya, home to Africa's largest proven oil reserves.