December 12, 2009

IV. Background

Libya, formally known as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, is a large country, 1,759,540 square kilometers (679,363 sq. miles), with a population of just over 6 million.[2] The vast Sahara Desert encompasses more than 90 percent of the country, and the majority of the population lives on the Mediterranean coast. The United Nations Development Program ranks Libya 55out of 182 countries on its Human Development Index.[3]

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed, or who the authorities feared could oppose, the new system. Authorities labeled critics “stray dogs” and rounded up academics, lawyers, students, journalists, Trotskyists, communists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others considered “enemies of the revolution,” imprisoning or subjecting them to enforced disappearance.[4]  Another wave of internal repression came in 1989, with the government instituting “mass arbitrary arrest and detention, ‘disappearances,’ torture, and the death penalty.”[5] No form of dissent was tolerated and Libya openly espoused a policy of assassinating Libyan dissidents abroad.[6]

Libya’s international isolation intensified in the late 1980s after a number of attacks abroad were attributed to Libyan agents. In December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. This was followed by the bombing of UTA flight 772 over Niger in 1989, killing 170.The U.S. and European governments blamed al-Gaddafi for the attacks. In January 1992, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 731, which ordered Libya to surrender the suspects in the two plane bombings, cooperate with the investigations, pay compensation to the victims' families, and cease all support for terrorism. This was followed in March 1992 by Security Council Resolution 748, which imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya. The embargo had a negative impact on Libya's economy. It was further strengthened by Security Council Resolution 883 in November 1993 which imposed a limited asset freeze and an embargo on select oil equipment.

In 1999 Libya improved its relations with Western Europe and the United States by surrendering two Libyan nationals suspected of the Pan Am bombing. A Scottish court in the Netherlands subsequently acquitted one of the men and sentenced the other, `Abd al-Basit al-Megrahi, to life in prison in 2001. In a controversial decision, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice released al-Megrahi on August 20, 2009, citing his terminal illness, and returned him to Libya. Crowds at Tripoli airport waving Scottish flags greeted him upon return, an orchestrated affair which was condemned as a hero’s welcome by much of the western media and by many governments.

International Re-integration

The turning point in Libya’s relationship with the international community came in December 2003 when Libya announced it would give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and limit its long-range missiles.[7]  Libya said it would comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention, sign the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol and adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In August 2003, Libya accepted "responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials" for the Pan Am and UTA bombings and agreed to pay compensation to the families.[8] The US-Libya compensation deal was signed in August 2008[9] and by November 2008 the families announced that they had received 100% of the compensation.[10] As one State Department official put it, the past six years have witnessed a "gradual, step-by-step normalization" of U.S.-Libyan relations.[11]

In May 2006 then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.S. was “restoring full diplomatic relations with Libya” and would remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism where it had been since December 1979.[12] In August 2008 the US and Libya signed a claims settlement agreement, indemnifying each other against outstanding lawsuits for bombings attributed to Libya and US airstrikes in the 1990s. In September 2008 Condoleezza Rice became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Libya since 1953. On November 20, 2008, the US Senate confirmed Gene Cretz as U.S. Ambassador to Libya, the first American ambassador there in over 35 years.[13]

The thawing of relations between Libya and the U.S. has been particularly significant in terms of counter-terrorism cooperation. Libya is regarded as a partner in the fight against terrorism and continues to share intelligence on militant Islamists with Western governments.[14]  Since 2004, the US has rendered a number of Libyan former CIA detainees to Libya,[15] five of whom Human Rights Watch was able to interview in April 2009. Human Rights Watch was the first organization to confirm their detention in Libya. In addition, on December 18, 2006, the US government returned Libyan citizen Mohamed al-Rimi from Guantanamo Bay to Libya, followed by Sofian Hamoodah on September 30, 2007.

 On October 18, 2005 Libya and the United Kingdom signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to facilitate deportation of persons suspected of activities associated with terrorism,”[16]  which Human Rights Watch had said would put them at serious risk of torture.[17]  On April 27, 2007, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that the United Kingdom could not return two terrorism suspects to Libya due to the risk of torture and unfair trials, a decision confirmed in appeal on April 9, 2008.[18] 

 Other European governments and the European Union have also strengthened ties with Libya recently, driven by business interests and encouraged by Libya's cooperation in combating terrorism and illegal migration.  EU sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2004 and Libya and the EU signed a memorandum of understanding on July 23, 2007. In November 2008, negotiations on an EU-Libya Framework Agreement covering areas such as “political dialogue, trade, energy, migrations and environment   began in Brussels.[19] The negotiations are ongoing with another round scheduled to take place in November 2009.

The resolution of one of the main sticking points in EU-Libyan relations, the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, also paved the way for improved relations. The health workers had been in prison since 1999, convicted of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV. Their release in July 2007 came as a result of negotiations that intensified after Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union in January of that year.  The Libyan High Judicial Council commuted the healthcare workers’ death sentences, following a deal with the European Union to upgrade Libyan-EU relations, which Libyan sources said included compensating the victims’ families with a US$1 million per child.[20]   

The intervention of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the case ended with his then-wife Cecilia Sarkozy accompanying the nurses and doctor on their flight out of Libya,[21] Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi was invited on a state visit to France in December 2007, his first visit to Europe in 34 years.[22]  He signed billions of dollars in contracts during his stays in France and Spain on that trip.[23] Earlier that year Russia's then-president Vladimir Putin signed multi-billion-dollar arms and energy deals during a visit to Libya in April, the first by a Russian president.

Italy and Libya solidified their close relationship with a number of agreements and joint initiatives. On August 30, 2008 both countries signed the “The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” which called for “intensifying” cooperation in “fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.”[24]  In September 2008 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Libya, pledging US$5 billion in reparations for "the damage inflicted" during Italy's colonial rule. Berlusconi said Italy would receive increased access to Libyan oil and gas and "fewer clandestine immigrants." On May 15, 2009 an agreement to conduct joint Libyan-Italian naval patrols of Libyan shores went into effect. In June 2009, Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi made his first state visit to Italy [25] and returned the following month to attend the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy.  In September 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report Pushed Back Pushed Around describing the negative impact this agreement has had on the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.[26]

In October 2007 Libya won a seat on the UN Security Council and it held the rotating presidency in January 2009.[27]  In February 2009 Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi became chairman of the African Union at a summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and on June 10, 2009 the General Assembly elected former Libyan secretary for African Affairs Ali Treki President of its sixty-fourth session. On September 23, 2009, Mu’ammar Gaddafi gave a 96-minute speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly in which he criticized the UN system and the Security Council. However, he refrained from making provocative remarks towards the United States or the West in general, avoiding sensitive subjects such as the return of Megrahi, which indicates a desire on his part to maintain good relations with the West.

Libya is party to the seven core international human rights treaties, although not all of

their optional protocols. It ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1989, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading

Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1989, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 1986, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2003. Libya has taken strong positions against signing the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court with Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi calling the latter a “new world terrorism.”[28]

Reform Initiatives

Human rights observers have, for years, criticized the Libyan penal code for violating freedom of expression and association and for excessively heavy sentences.[29] The Libyan authorities first announced their intention to amend the penal code in 2003. Then-Secretary of Justice `Ali `Umar Abu Bakr told Human Rights Watch in May 2005 that by the end of that year the experts were due to submit a new penal code to the Basic People’s Congresses for debate.[30] A draft obtained by Amnesty International in 2004 contained many articles that were inconsistent with Libya’s obligations under international human rights law. Vague terms in some articles, such as “spreading rumors,” “insult,” and “harming the reputation of the country,” appeared as if they could lead to the death penalty being imposed for the peaceful expression of political views.[31]  In October 2005, Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi spoke before the Higher Judicial Council calling for a revision of the penal code; “I want the men and women of Libya to create their penal code so that this is the first time that a people creates its own penal code which will then run it.”[32]

Chief Justice of the Libyan Supreme Court, Dr. Abdulrahman Tuta, told Human Rights Watch in April 2009 that he chaired a committee composed of judges, lawyers and academics which drafted a new penal code.[33] The Secretary of Justice Mostafa Abdeljalil told Human Rights Watch that the draft penal code would be formally presented in the summer of 2009 to the Basic People’s Congresses for discussion.  This would be the first step toward its adoption but as of the time of this writing this has yet to take place. [34] Under Libya’s political system, each congress may approve or reject the proposal, or approve it with reservations. The code will come into force if approved by the General People’s Congress.

At a rare public meeting at the Tripoli Bar Association in April 2008, a number of Libyan lawyers openly criticized the latest version of the draft penal code for its continued repression of basic freedoms and the pervasiveness of the death penalty.[35] In January 2009, Human Rights Watch received the latest version of the draft penal code and in June 2009 sent the Libyan authorities its comments and recommendations on the proposed provisions to bring them into compliance with international human rights law. The new draft limits the number of provisions providing for the death penalty and reduces many of the sentences but retains provisions criminalizing freedom of expression and association. [36]

Even the General People’s Committee for Public Security seems aware of the need to evolve with the times; its website now has a form for “complaints to remedy any mistakes.”[37]  The Libyan Secretary of Public Security, General Abdelfattah al-Obeidi, sought to assure Human Rights Watch that he had issued a decision last year ordering all officers not to hit or humiliate citizens in any way during the performance of their duties. Yet he was unable to provide Human Rights Watch with any information on the number of complaints received about such treatment or the number of cases investigated by his ministry.[38] No information is available on the number of officers prosecuted but a lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the number is likely to be very low since “the General Prosecutor can’t interrogate any officer without authorization from the Secretary of Public Security and he always refuses.”[39]

Another sign that the General People’s Committee for Public Security recognizes the need to show some effort towards displaying awareness of human rights is the apparent establishment of human rights training. In April 2009, Colonel Kamal El Dib told Human Rights Watch about the human rights training programs he began running at the General People’s Committee for Public Security in 2004. He said up to 60,000 officers have been trained on issues including “human rights concepts, non-discrimination, security and legitimacy, the torture convention, how the police should deal with citizens and the Great Green Charter on Human Rights.”[40] He said that this was a capacity-building project and that Libya had brought in expert trainers from the UK, the US and Egypt.  Human Rights Watch could not verify the extent of this program or evaluate its content. While the impact of human rights training is often difficult to assess, especially where there is a culture of impunity for violations, it shows awareness on the part of the General People’s Committee for Public Security of the need to have some form of human rights program on display. 

Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, is generally perceived as the leader or sometimes spokesperson for the “reformist” groups in Libyan government. His speeches in August to Libyan youth associations had become the platform for reform. He used these speeches to announce plans to draft a new constitution, a radical suggestion in the context of his father’s vision of direct democracy. In August 2007 his speech “Libya - Truth for All” spoke candidly of some of the human rights violations of the past and of the right of families to learn about what had happened to their disappeared relatives.[41] On August 22, 2008, however, Saif al-Islam announced that he was retiring from political life and would confine himself to his charitable activities through his foundation.[42]  Some analysts interpreted this as a sign of his receding power internally and therefore also that of the so-called reformist members of government. On October 12, however, two months after he escorted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi back to Libya, the People’s Leadership Committees appointed Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi as their general coordinator, effectively making him the second most important man in the country. The week before, Libyan Leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi had asked the People’s Leadership Committees to find an official position for his son Saif to “allow him to implement reforms.”[43]


[2]  United Nations Development Program Libya, Country Info, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[3] United Nations Development Program Human Development Report 2009, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, (accessed October 23, 2009).

[4] The National Front for the Salvation of Libya’s 1998 list of 2626prisoners, which relies on several different sources, gives an overview of the different waves of arrest which took place, see National Front for the Salvation of Libya, Human Rights Report, December 1998, (accessed November 7, 2009).

[5] For a list of prisoners arrested see Libya Human Rights Solidarity, “Mass Trial of 98 Prisoners of Conscience,” June 18, 2001, (accessed September 29, 2009); Amnesty International, “Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality,” AI Index: MED 19/002/2004, April 26, 2004, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[6]  On the assassination of Libyan dissidents in the UK by Libyan security see Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, (London: Allen Lane, 2009).

[7] “Libyan WMD: Tripoli’s statement in full,” BBC News Online, December 20, 2003, ( accessed August 23, 2009).

[8] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1506 (2003), S/RES/1506 (2003) (accessed September 29, 2009).Libya agreed to pay the families of victims $10 million each-$4 million after the lifting of U.N. sanctions, another $4 million after the lifting of U.S. sanctions based on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)and the last $2 million when the U.S. State Department takes Libya off its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

[9] US-Libya compensation deal sealed, BBC News Online, August 14, 2008, (accessed July 2, 2009).

[10]   Matthew Weaver, “Families of Lockerbie bombing victims receive compensation from Libya,” The Guardian, November 21, 2008, accessed July 21, 2009).

[11]  Statement by Acting Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns, at U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing Before the Committee on International Relations, "Libya: Progress on the Path Toward Cautious Reengagement," March 16, 2005, 109th Congress, No. 109-25,  (accessed Sept. 29, 2009), p. 4.

[12] “U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Libya,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, May 15,2006, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[13] “Confirmation of Gene A. Cretz as U.S. Ambassador to Libya,” U.S. Department of State Office of the Spokesman, November 28, 2009, (accessed Aug.12, 2009).

[14] See Dana Moss and Simon Henderson, “Rebuilding U.S.-Libyan Relations Twenty Years after Lockerbie,”  The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch#1435, November 25, 2008, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[15] Human Rights Watch et al, Off the Record: U.S. Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the “War On Terror,” June 7, 2007,, pp. 10, 14, 16, 17.

[16] “UK signs memorandum of understanding with Libya,” Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release, Oct. 17, 2005, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[17] “U.K.: Torture a Risk in Libya Deportation Accord,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 17, 2005, (accessed July 17, 2009).

[18] AS& DD (Libya) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Supreme Court of Judicature Court of Appeal, April 9, 2008, EWCA Civ 289, Case No T1/2007/0504, (accessed July 17, 2009). See also  “UK: Appeals Court Blocks National Security Deportation,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 7, 2008, (accessed July 17, 2009).

[19] “EU-Libya: negotiations on future Framework Agreement start,” European Union press release, November 12, 2008, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[20] “HIV Medics Released to Bulgaria,” BBC News Online, July 24, 2007, (accessed August 8, 2009).

[21] Matthew Brunwasser and Elaine Sciolino, “Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor freed from captivity”, New York Times, July 24, 2007, available at (accessed August 3, 2009).

[22] John Ward Anderson, “Gaddafi Visit Causes Stir in France,” Washington Post, December 11,2007, (accessed July 1, 2009).

[23] “Gaddafi visit seals French deals”, BBC News, December 10, 2007, (accessed July 1, 2009).

[24]“Gaddafi, Berlusconi sign accord worth billions,” Reuters, August 30, 2008, (accessed June 26, 2009). The Italian Senate ratified the agreement on February 3, 2009; Libya ratified it a month later. “Italy-Libya: Tripoli

Ratifies Friendship Treaty” ANSAmed, March 2, 2009, (accessed

June 29, 2009).

[25] “Gaddafi in first visit to ex-colonial power Italy,” Reuters, June 10, 2009, (July 1, 2009).

[26] Human Rights Watch, Libya/Italy: Pushed Back Pushed Around, (New York, Human Rights Watch: September 21, 2009) (accessed September 29, 2009).

[27] “Libya Heads UN Security Council,” CNN News Online, January 3, 2008, (accessed July 7, 2009).

[28]  “Kadhafi slams ICC 'terrorism' in Bashir case,” AFP, March 29, 2009, (accessed September 6, 2009).

[29]  See Human Rights Watch, Libya:  Words to Deeds, Volume 18, No.1(E), (New York: Human Rights Watch, January 24, 2006),, Chapter VI; Amnesty International, “Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality,” AI Index: MDE 19/002/2004, April 26, 2004, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009), p. 3.

[30] According to the Libyan political system, Basic People’s Congresses exist in every local administrative unit (sha`biyya). Each Basic People’s Congress elects a People’s Committee (lajna sha`biyya lil –mahalla) as an executive body that appoints a local representative to the General People’s Congress (Mu’tamar al-Sha`b al-`Amm), the equivalent of a national legislative assembly.

[31]   Amnesty International, “Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality,” AI Index: MDE 19/002/2004, April 26, 2004, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009), pp. 12-13.

[32]  “Latest Edition: Qaddafi calls for revision of Libyan penal code (Arabic),” Al Arabiya , October 30, 2005, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Abdulrahman Abu Tuta, Chief Justice of the Libyan Supreme Court, Tripoli, April 21, 2009.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Counselor Mostafa Abdeljalil, Secretary of Justice, Tripoli, April 26, 2009.

[35] “Lawyers Debate New Penal Code (Arabic),”  Libya al-Youm, March 22, 2008, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009). 

[36] For more discussion on the relevant provisions of the new draft penal code see Sections below on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association.

[37] See complaint form, (accessed Sept. 29, 2009).

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with General Abdelfattah al-Obeidi, Secretary of Public Security, Tripoli, April 25, 2009.

[39] Human Rights Watch group interview with lawyers, Tripoli Bar Association, April 22, 2009.

[40] Human Rights Watch Interview with Kamal el Dib, Training Director at the General People’s Committee for Public Security, Tripoli, April 22, 2009.

[41] Speech by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi Chairman of GICDF "Libya...Truth for All, July 26, 2008, (accessed September 7, 2009).

[42] “Qaddafi's son declares he's leaving politics,” Associated Press, August 22, 2008, (accessed September 7, 2009).

[43] “Kadhafi Names Son Second-in-Command,” AFP, October 13, 2009, (accessed November 2, 2009).