Libya has sent to prison for 18 months a blogger who criticized the government on the Internet, Human Rights Watch (search) says in a report that inspired a series of Web tributes to the dissident Friday.

A Tripoli court convicted Abdel Raziq al-Mansuri (search) of illegal possession of a handgun and sentenced him to 18 months' imprisonment on Oct. 19, the New York-based rights group said in an e-mail to The Associated Press in Cairo.

"The gun charges are a ruse," said the Middle Eastern director of HRW, Sarah Leah Whitson (search). "The authorities went after al-Mansuri because they did not like what he wrote."

Al-Mansuri, 52, was detained in Tobruk, his hometown, in January after publishing about 50 articles critical of Libyan society and government on a dissident Web site based in Britain, http://www.akhbar-libya.com, the rights group said Thursday.

Libyan government officials were not available for comment Friday as the country was celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows the holy month of Ramadan.

The rights group, who visited al-Mansuri in Tripoli's Abu Selim prison on May 5, said his family published the outcome of his trial in an Oct. 27 letter to the government, media and rights organizations that condemned al-Mansuri's detention and sentence.

"Such outspoken criticism is rare in Libya," said Human Rights Watch. Politics has been tightly controlled in the country since Col. Moammar Gadhafi (search) seized power in 1969.

The letter said the authorities had asked family members to denounce al-Mansuri as mentally deranged.

"If defending the right to free speech, and asking for basic human rights is insane in our country, then welcome to a family that is, from its oldest to its youngest, insane," the letter said, according to Human Rights Watch.

The letter added that in sentencing al-Mansuri, the court had refused to give him credit for the months in detention he had already served.

The rights group said that after detaining al-Mansuri, Libyan security officials searched his home and "found an old pistol that belonged to his father."

The group reported the head of the Internal Security Agency, Col. Tuhami Khaled, as denying that al-Mansuri was arrested for his Internet writings.

"He was arrested because he had a gun without a license," the group quoted Khaled as telling its representatives in May.

Asked why the Internal Security Agency was detaining al-Mansuri instead of the police, Khaled replied that the pistol was "a job for internal security," the group said.

On Friday, the Web site http://www.akhbar-libya.com carried numerous statements of support for al-Mansuri from Libyans in exile and human rights groups.

"With his courage and truthful words, Abdel Raziq managed to break the barrier of fear. He has moved from the big prison (Libya) to a smaller one," said Ahmed Masoud Al-Ghabali, a Libyan who recalled meeting al-Mansuri in Britain.

The site itself said he had been arrested for writing articles that "demanded freedom of expression and denounced human rights abuses in Libya."