By Gabriel Harrison.
Tunis, 27 July 2017:
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that human rights activists in Libya continue to be targeted and prevented from operating, in many cases by militias linked to the Presidency Council and its government of national accord (GNA). It says they have been physically attacked and detained in Tripoli and other regions of western Libya. In some cases, activists have disappear altogether. It notes that the authorities have been unable to stem the abuse and that the offenders continue to operate with impunity.
HRW says that in April 2017 it interviewed 18 human rights activists, most asking not to be named for fear of repercussions. Eleven claimed to have been threatened by militias or armed groups, some of which were affiliated with the UN-backed GNA.
“Militias and other armed groups with a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset have gone after activists, bloggers, and media workers,” said HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson. It had forced many to flee the country, either to Tunisia or elsewhere. The GNA, she said, had to take action to prevent the abuse of human rights activists.
The activists explained the risks associated with their work in the region, notably accusations of espionage. All the activists interviewed by HRW said they had to censor themselves and often left incidents of harassment unreported out of fear.
The report referred to the Libyan Centre for Freedom of the Press (LCFP) which expressed its concerns over the fact that the majority of activists had to practice self-censorship because of fears for their own safety. It noted that they rarely filed police complaints for fear of reprisals and, in some cases, the police refused to accept a complaint.
“By silencing critics through threats of violence, warlords and thuggish militias have found a convenient way to expand their power base at the expense of political stability,” said Whitson, noting that, on the contrary, the Constitution Declaration in 2011 guaranteed “freedom of opinion, individual and collective expression, research, communication, press, media, printing and editing, movement, assembly, demonstration and peaceful sit-in in accordance with the statute”.
Aggression towards activists had increased significantly since July 2014, with female activists becoming the predominant target, HRW pointed out, noting in particular that the raising of women’s rights issues of any kind was being particularly quashed by the militias.
“We are subjected to substantial religious pressure, mostly when we address domestic violence issues,” the report quoted one Libyan women’s rights activist as saying. “ I have been accused of being an apostate, an atheist and secularist for raising women’s rights issues. If you try to address such sensitive issues you will be accused of atheism and it becomes ‘permissible’ to kill you.”
The activist went on to say that only organisations attached to political parties were able to carry out any work in relative freedom. However, any discussion of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty described as an international bill of rights for women, crossed a current red line. Libya ratified CEDAW in 1989, but now it appears to have been overruled as it seen as contradicting Sharia law.
Environmental activists have also been particularly targeted, said HRW. It quoted one environmentalist saying that since the conflict in 2014, his freedom to report had been heavily curtailed when militias aligned with the Libya Dawn alliance threatened to arrest him after he reported on armed groups commandeering forest areas and the subsequent environmental impact.
HRW noted that, according to the LCFP’s 2016 annual report, armed groups last year attacked 107 media workers around the country and killed two journalists. A total of nine journalists have been killed in Libya since 2014.
HRW also mentioned in particular three prominent activists who had either disappeared or been killed since 2014: Abdelmoez Banoon, missing since his abduction on 25 July 2014; Intissar al-Hassaeri found dead in the trunk of a car in Tripoli on 24 February 2015; Janir Zain, abducted on 25 September 2016 and likewise still missing.
Although the vast majority of activists interviewed by HRW preferred to go unnamed, HRW focused on and named three in particular.
Ahmed Ghedan, a prominent civil and political rights activist who fled to Tunisia in 2014 because of threats from militias linked to Libya Dawn, said: “The situation was terrifying. It was no longer safe for me to remain there. Most well-known activists left the country. The militias’ aim was to monitor activists and place a gag on them.”
Ghedan returned to Tripoli in August 2015 and remained inactive until March 2017 when he co-organised a demonstration in downtown Tripoli, calling for all armed groups to leave. Following the demonstration, he was accused of being pro-Hafter by several groups, and a representative of the Al-Buni militia told him, “We do not want to see you in the square anytime soon.”
“I am afraid for my life and afraid of getting kidnapped or disappearing altogether, so I stopped blogging. It’s too dangerous to publicly criticise militias and comment on politics.” Ghedan told HRW.
The Buni militia, which controlled the terminal building at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, and was said to have made a fortune from complicity in smuggling operations through it, was finally broken up and its members arrested last month after internal fighting over proceeds from the smuggling led to rockets being fired, one of which killed a family on a nearby beach.
Alaa al-Adham, a member of the LCFP and former anchor at Al-Nabaa TV, said that she had been attacked on many occasions during her work there. Between 2015 and 2017, the main headquarters of her network was attacked at least four times. One attack occurred on 31 March 2016, the day Prime Minister Faiez Serraj and the Presidency Council arrived in Tripoli from Tunis. Members of Haitham Tajouri’s forces entered the network headquarters, threatened staff with arrest, beat them, stole and destroyed items they found, she said.
Another attack occurred in April. A Tripoli-based militia from the Bab Tajoura area attacked the network forcing it to shift its Libya offices. Since then she had received many other threats, in this case, from supporters of the Libyan National Army.
The last activist, named as Izzaldin Alhouni, a former TV journalist and activist from Sirte, told HRW: “In Sirte today, you cannot talk about human rights violations by Bunyan Marsous, you cannot criticise them, you cannot report in total transparency. They have this idea that they liberated the city from the ‘germ’ called ISIS while sacrificing ‘700 martyrs’. I am afraid they will beat me if I speak in total transparency about what’s going on there.”