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The Colonel, Human Rights and Lockerbie

LONDON -- The Scottish government may well have been legally obliged to release the terminally ill convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, if his illness meant his continued detention would lead to inhuman or degrading treatment (though nothing required sending him home to a hero's welcome). But questions still abound about accountability for the Lockerbie bombing.

And as Libya celebrated the 40th anniversary of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule last week, the furor over al-Megrahi's release has only deepened the suspicions of deal making and compromise that have tainted the West's decade-long efforts to rehabilitate Libya.

Ten years ago -Qaddafi surrendered al-Megrahi, and another Libyan, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, to face a Scottish trial in the Netherlands on charges of involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The act was designed, and accepted by the West, as a symbol of Libya's renunciation of its sponsorship of terrorism. Al-Megrahi was convicted, and Fhimah acquitted. In 2003, UN economic sanctions imposed against Libya after Lockerbie were dropped.

The interface between, on one hand, the rehabilitation of Libya and, on the other, the surrender, trial, conviction and release of Al-Megrahi is murky to say the least. Many of the relatives of the victims complain that the only person convicted of the Lockerbie murders has now walked free in a process driven by political expediency. Others question why greater efforts were not made to pursue accountability for those who ordered the bombing.

In reality, political expediency has been the name of the game in the rush to embrace Gaddafi. The West has welcomed the colonel's cooperation: the renunciation of an alleged program to build nuclear weapons; assistance in counter-terrorism efforts; offers of new energy and defense opportunities for Western companies; Libyan investment in the West; help in stemming the flow of African migrants across the Mediterranean.

But very little has been said about human rights. Libya remains a country where no political opposition, dissent or criticism of the government is tolerated, where torture is widely practiced, where political prisoners are not released on compassionate grounds, but rather languish in prison for years after show trials or no trials -- many held incommunicado, unaccounted for to their relatives. Yet in recent years Western criticism of Libya's human rights record has been mute.

True, some of the worst excesses of the past, such as the kidnapping and assassination of political exiles, have been curtailed. Proposals for legislative reform are being prepared, and the authorities have started trying to address some of the worst past abuses by compensating victims' families. The rehabilitation by the West, with its greater international scrutiny of Libya's human rights record, may account for these changes.

But in two areas Western influence on human rights in Libya may have been negative. First, the UK and the US have both signaled by the conduct of their own forces in Iraq and elsewhere that protecting human rights is not a priority when it comes to fighting terrorism. The US has even engaged with Tripoli in the rendition of suspected Libyan terrorists from CIA "black sites" in Afghanistan to Libya, where Human Rights Watch researchers found them confined in Abu Salim prison earlier this year.

Second, the European Union turns a blind eye to inhuman and degrading conditions for migrants in Libyan detention centers because it likes Libyan cooperation in stemming the flow of African migration to Europe via Libya. Human Rights Watch has documented these human rights violations, including frequent allegations of beatings, demands for bribes, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and accounts of people being dumped in the desert.

Italy has even begun forcibly returning boat migrants to Libya without screening to determine if they need the kind of protection that Libya (which has neither signed the 1951 Refugee Convention nor developed any asylum law or procedure) has shown itself unwilling to provide. This is a clear breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits European states from sending people to countries where they are likely to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The public relations disaster of the release and hero's welcome of al-Megrahi should be a wake up call for the UK and others to pay more attention to principles and less attention to short term expediency in re-engaging with Libya. There is an opportunity to do this by insisting on strong language on human rights in the upcoming negotiations on an EU-Libya partnership agreement.

We will probably never know the full truth about the Lockerbie bombing and who ordered it, but it's not too late for the West to make improvement of relations with Libya conditional on the improvement of human rights of ordinary Libyans and an end to Libya's brutal treatment of African refugees and migrants.

Tom Porteous is London Director of Human Rights Watch.

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