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Gadaffi urged to mark anniversary by restoring rights

40 years after Al Fateh revolution, Libyans still lack basic freedoms

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - (New York, August 31, 2009) - Colonel Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi should mark his 40th anniversary in power by wiping repressive laws off the books and freeing political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. Notwithstanding movements toward reform in the past five years, laws and policies that restrict the most basic rights and freedoms of Libyan citizens remain in force, and Libyans are not free to criticize the government or to form political associations.

"Gaddafi's Great Green Charter of Human Rights promised that 'all human beings will be free and equal in the exercise of power,'" said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Forty years later, Libyans are still waiting for their rights."

Limited steps toward increased press freedom, legal reforms, and increased tolerance of dissent indicate that at least some elements of the government recognize the need for reform. Two new private newspapers and the internet have created a new limited space for freedom of expression, and some unprecedented public demonstrations have taken place.

The Justice Ministry has announced plans to reform the most repressive provisions of the penal code, but has not yet made the proposed revisions public. The justice system at times has made independent decisions, ordering the government to pay compensation to people whose rights have been violated. But many trials, especially those before the State Security Court, still fail to meet international due process standards. Overall, unjustified limits on free expression and association remain the norm, including penal code provisions that criminalize "insulting public officials" or "opposing the ideology of the Revolution."

"Business deals with other countries aren't going to improve Libya's human rights reputation," Whitson said. "That won't happen until Libya abolishes laws that restrict speech and association, frees its political prisoners, and prosecutes government officials responsible for past crimes."

Human Rights Watch went to Libya on a research mission in April 2009, meeting with the secretary of the General People's Committee for Justice, the justice minister, the secretary of the General People's Committee for Public Security, and the interior minister, as well as other officials. Two reports detailing its findings will be issued this year.

Freedom of expression, assembly, and association

Freedom of expression is severely restricted by the Libyan penal code, which criminalizes acts such as "insulting public officials" and "promoting anti-state theories." However, in the past five years, there has been a gradual opening of a new, still-vulnerable, space for freedom of expression. Libyans have access to more information through establishment of two private newspapers and a satellite TV station, along with the spread of international satellite stations and the availability of Libyan news websites based abroad. This gradual opening has brought with it an increase in media criticism of government policies, as well as an increase in the number of prosecutions of journalists, although no journalist has been sentenced to prison so far.

Libyan laws also severely restrict freedom of association. Law 71 bans any group activity opposing the ideology of the 1969 revolution, and the penal code imposes the death penalty on those who join those groups. The Libyan association law (Law 19) also restricts freedom of association by requiring any new organization to have 50 founding members and to apply for certification giving the General People's Congress full discretion to refuse an application without justification or appeal. For example, Libya's Internal Security Agency blocked an attempt in the summer of 2008 by a group of lawyers and journalists to set up an independent human rights organization.

In a further step backward, on June 29, the General People's Committee issued a decision (312/2009) requiring 30-day advance approval from a newly established government committee to hold any meeting or event, and requiring the meeting organizers to provide a list of all participants and the issues to be discussed. Under international law, though, these requirements do not meet the standard of a necessary or proportionate limitation to freedom of assembly and association.

"Libyan authorities should reform the penal code and law on associations to bring them fully in line with international standards for freedom of expression and association," said Whitson. "Issuing a decree that further stifles freedom of assembly gives the wrong signal. It should be revoked."

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For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Libya, please click here

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