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Human Rights Watch holds historical rights review

Human Rights Watch criticises Libyan regime for free expression abuses at historical press conference in Tripoli; families of prison massacre victims protest.
Human Rights Watch criticises Libyan regime for free expression abuses at historical press conference in Tripoli; families of prison massacre victims protest.

via Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch held an unprecedented news conference in Libya on 12 December, releasing a hard-hitting report calling on Libyan authorities to abolish laws that criminalise speech and association, to free those unjustly imprisoned and to provide justice for victims of a 1996 prison massacre. The report acknowledges that freedom of expression has improved in the last five years, but more reform is needed.

News reports say the launch of the report was cut short by government agents who denounced the speakers. "The Times" in the UK reported: "Security agents infiltrated the press conference in a Tripoli hotel, photographed those present, then brought the proceedings to an end by shouting down the speakers." Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, helped stage the Human Rights Watch event, revealing tensions between the old guard and the reform-minded heir, say news reports.

The report, "Libya: Truth and Justice Can't Wait", is based on a 10-day visit to Libya in April as well as ongoing monitoring from outside the country. Although the Internet and two new newspapers allow journalists to write freely about certain sensitive issues, the report says criminal sanctions hinder journalists and prosecution under the country's libel laws has increased. The two newspapers were reportedly started by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

Private newspapers and journalists for websites based abroad do have greater freedom, but they still avoid directly questioning the leadership of the government, says the report. In Libya, journalists are interrogated for writing critically about the state. On 7 December former political prisoner and prominent critic Jamal el Haji was arrested. El Haji had criticised the government's detention of political prisoners and denounced the state's abuses on BBC in September.

"A public assessment of Libya's human rights record in Tripoli would have been unthinkable a few years ago and reflects the expanded space for public discussion in Libya," said Human Rights Watch.

The report highlights the Internal Security Agency as a major perpetrator in violating freedom of expression and other human rights. The Agency controls two prisons and is notorious for operating with impunity as it arbitrarily imprisons or disappears Libyans. The agency is also known for holding people incommunicado for months and for causing deaths in custody.

A positive development came from the Justice Ministry which Human Rights Watch says acts independently at times. The Ministry has prepared a revised draft of the penal code, reducing penalties for its most repressive provisions. However it still criminalises political speech such as "insulting public officials" or "opposing the goals of the Revolution."

Also in Libya this month, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) participated in a two-day seminar in Tripoli from 16 to 17 December. The Libyan Journalists and Media Workers' Association, an IFJ affiliate, called for new legislation to guarantee freedom of expression, greater transparency and more respect for the role of journalists.

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