We recently heard about the deterioration in the security situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) and members of the civil society in Libya. In an online meeting, Libyan human rights defenders described how the authorities and their security agencies across the country were using increasingly restrictive measures that threatened to silence them and criminalise their human rights work.
In particular, we heard about the use of social media by the Internal Security Agency (ISA) to spread defamation and incitement to violence against defenders. Some nine human rights defenders and individuals were detained during the past year, and were forced to make “confessions” that were recorded and published on the Internal Security Agency’s Facebook page, most recently in March 2022. The individuals “admitted” to being atheistic, non-religious, secular and feminist and to using social media to spread atheism and homosexuality in the country.
At least one HRD is now on trial for “destruction of the fundamentals of society,” a charge that carries the death penalty if convicted, according to Article 207 of Libya’s Penal Code. The trial sessions are held in a hall within a detention centre that is run by the Special Deterrence Force, an armed group affiliated to the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli.
The ISA was active in eastern Libya under authorities separate from those in Tripoli, but a branch of it recently came under the control of the Government of National Unity and reports directly to the prime minster. It is formed mainly of a collection of armed groups.
Although Facebook has removed the ISA videos, the “confessions” have already gained popularity in more conservative parts of Libyan society, sparking hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence against human rights activists and supporters of individual freedoms. A list of names was circulated on social media along with calls to arrest them, and have them judged under the Sharia’ Law, and for the death penalty to be applied to apostates. As one HRD put it to us: “The ISA chose the weakest group in civil society because it has no social backing, unlike HRDs working on corruption – it is more difficult to defend LGBT rights”
The security attacks are part of a wider atmosphere of restrictions begun in 2019 when the then Tripoli government passed Decree 286 governing non-governmental organisations (NGOs), stipulating burdensome registration steps, and requiring them to obtain advance approval for funding, travel, training, interaction with foreign groups and other activities. Human rights defenders who challenged the new requirements were accused of being foreign agents.
Some human rights organisations, particularly those advocating free speech, women’s rights and gender rights, such as the Tanweer Movement, have shut down, while a number of HRDs and activists have moved out of Libya to relative safety in Tunisia or Europe. The wave of arrest of HRDs has subsided since April, but the combined security threats and government regulations has quashed much of civil society life, leaving no room for training, travel or advocacy, or for the protection of human rights defenders.
The UN Office of Hugh Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an end to the “aggressive campaign” against Libyan human rights defenders, to release those arbitrarily detained and ensure the protection of those named in coerced confessions. See https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1114712