EU governments should make human rights a priority in this "new era" of EU-Libya relations.
Following the healthcare workers’ release, the EU acknowledged the “potential of increased EU-Libya co-operation in many areas of common interest” and noted that it is committed to working on the framework of future EU-Libya relations.1 We wish to stress that the release of the healthcare workers, which ended a long miscarriage of justice, highlighted the fact that human rights abuses in Libya remain a deep concern. Many others remain in prison after torture and unfair trials, but their cases are largely unknown to the outside world. It is imperative that the EU put pressure on Libya to reform the judicial system that unjustly imprisoned these health workers for more than eight years and continues to imprison scores of others because they peacefully expressed alternative political views.
Suppression of Civil and Political Rights
In Libya, civil and political rights are severely curtailed. Despite some improvements, torture remains a deep concern. Human Rights Watch has documented serious allegations of torture in its 2006 report on Libya.2 Fifteen out of 32 prisoners interviewed reported having been tortured during interrogations by Libyan security personnel in recent years. Prisoners said that interrogators subjected them to electric shocks, hung them from walls, and beat them with clubs and wooden sticks. During interviews in Tripoli’s Jdeida prison in 2005, four of the six foreign healthcare workers recently released told us that they had confessed only after enduring torture, including beatings, electric shock and sexual assault.
The media is strictly controlled. Libya has no private radio or television stations, and government authorities or the Revolutionary Committees Movement, a powerful ideological organization that promotes the values of the al-Fateh Revolution, control the country’s main newspapers and magazines. The only sources of uncensored news and discussion are satellite television programs and the Internet, both of which have proliferated in recent years. The government has occasionally blocked some Internet sites, and in 2005 the Internet writer `Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison, ostensibly for illegal possession of a weapon, although all the circumstances of his arrest, detention and conviction indicate that the actual motivation was his critical writings.
Individuals and groups are not free to express views critical of the government, the unique Jamahiriya political system, or the country’s leader, Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi. Those who do express criticism or try to organize opposition political groups face arbitrary detention and long prison terms after unfair trials. A pervasive security apparatus monitors the population to a high degree.
The Libyan government strictly curtails freedom of association, particularly if based on political activity. Most notably, Law 71 bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution, which brought Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi to power in 1969.
The Internal Security Agency has detained Fathi al-Jahmi, an outspoken critic of al-Qadhafi, since 2004 for giving interviews to the press criticizing the leader. Al-Jahmi suffers from bad health, and the authorities have denied doctors and his family regular visits.
Most recently, on February 16 and 17, 2007, state security arrested 13 men as they planned a peaceful demonstration to commemorate the first anniversary of an attack by Libyan police on a demonstration in Benghazi, in which 12 people were killed and many injured.3 A fourteenth man, a brother of a man from the original group, was arrested one hour after he gave an interview to a Libyan website in London, al-Mostakbal, about his brother’s arrest.
The authorities are holding most of the men at Jdeida prison or ‘Ayn Zara prison in Tripoli, but two of them are currently missing: Jum`a Boufayed (brother of Dr. Idris Boufayed, who was arrested after giving the interview) and `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi. In addition, two of the detainees—Ahmad Yusif al-`Ubaidi and al-Sadiq Salih Humaid—suffer from medical ailments, and it appears as if medical treatment has been denied.
To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, none of the men have called for or advocated violent means. Dr. Idris Boufayed, the demonstration’s main organizer, is an outspoken critic of the Libyan leader and runs a small exile group called the National Union for Reform (he lived in Switzerland for 16 years). Security agents detained him for at least one month in November 2006, after he wrote critical letters to Libyan opposition websites.4
Another of the men, Jamal al- Haji, is a recognized poet and government critic. In an article he wrote a few days before his arrest he called for “freedom, democracy, a constitutional state, and law.”
At least the group of 13, and possible all 14, are currently on trial facing three main allegations: planning to overthrow the government, arms possession, and meeting with an official from a foreign state (the US).5 The poet Jamal al-Haji holds Danish citizenship. The Danish Government has, without success, repeatedly requested access to al-Haji, which they are entitled to do under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963. Libya refuses to recognize al-Haji’s Danish citizenship and insists on treating him as a Libyan citizen to whom Danish diplomats are not granted access.
While the precise charges and their legal basis remain unclear, some or all of these defendants could face the death penalty, as could Fathi al-Jahmi. Despite numerous promises to abolish the death penalty, capital punishment still exists, including for actions that should not be considered criminal, but should be protected as the exercise of the rights to free assembly and expression.
Article 206 of the Libyan penal code imposes the death penalty on those who call “for the establishment of any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law,” and on those who belong to or support such an organization. Article 166 provides that the death penalty may be imposed on anyone who talks to or conspires with a foreign official to provoke or contribute to an attack against Libya. Article 167 provides that sentences up to life in prison can be imposed for conspiring with a foreign official to harm Libya’s military, political or diplomatic position.
The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders commits the EU to use the tools at its disposal, including undertaking demarches to raise the cases of human rights defenders who are at risk. At least two of the 14 men, and perhaps the entire group, fit into the category of human rights defenders who were simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. While regretting the fact that the EU has so far failed to act on behalf of the 14 men, we urge the EU to immediately undertake a demarche, express profound concerns about their arrest and well-being, and demand that the Libyan government observe all international due process standards. As a matter of urgency, the EU should request information from the Libyan authorities about the location and condition of Jum`a Boufayed and `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi.
Libya has supported notable advances in women’s rights, but serious problems remain. Human Rights Watch has focused on the government’s practice of arbitrarily detaining women and girls indefinitely in so-called “social rehabilitation” facilities, which hold women and girls suspected of transgressing moral codes. The state may detain the women and girls indefinitely because, the government says, their families have rejected them and they are at risk. The government routinely violates the detainees’ rights, including those to due process, liberty, freedom of movement, personal dignity, and privacy. Many women and girls detained in these facilities have committed no crime, or have already served a sentence. Some are there because they were raped and are now ostracized for staining their family’s honor. There is no way out of these facilities unless a male relative takes custody of the woman or girl or she consents to marriage.
The “social rehabilitation” facilities have a distinct prison-like character. The women and girls sleep in locked quarters and are not allowed to leave the gates of the compound. The custodians sometimes subject them to long periods of solitary confinement, occasionally in handcuffs, for trivial reasons like “talking back.” They are tested for communicable diseases without their consent upon entry, and most are forced to endure invasive virginity examinations. Some residents are as young as 16, but authorities provide no education, except weekly religious instruction.
The Libyan government promised to look into the abuses documented in our report on the topic.6 Aisha al-Qadhafi, daughter of the Libyan leader, promised to investigate. In February, the government said it had established a committee to study the conditions in Libya’s “social rehabilitation” facilities, including examining the physical and psychological well-being of the detained women and children. The results of the committee’s work, if any, remain unclear.
We urge the EU to follow up on the committee’s progress in reviewing these conditions to see if there has been any change in the circumstances leading to such arbitrary detentions.
Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people have come to Libya, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, either to stay in the country or to travel through to Europe. Many of the foreigners came for economic reasons, but some have fled their home countries due to persecution or war. Once welcomed as cheap labor, sub-Saharan Africans in Libya now face tightened immigration controls, detention and deportation.
In 2006 Human Rights Watch released a report that documented how Libyan authorities have arbitrarily arrested thousands of undocumented foreigners, mistreated them in detention, and forcibly returned them to countries where they could face persecution or torture, such as Eritrea and Somalia.7 From 2003 to 2005, the government repatriated roughly 145,000 foreigners, according to official Libyan figures. An overarching problem is Libya’s refusal to introduce an asylum law or procedure, despite repeated promises to do so. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the government makes no attempt to identify refugees or others in need of international protection.
In negotiations with Libya on the subject of migration, the EU must acknowledge that Libya is not a safe country for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and must insist that Libya protects the rights of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the country. The EU must refrain from working with Libya to block people from reaching Europe but rather help them to get the protection they need.
Issues Related to HIV/AIDS
Finally, at least 50 of the Benghazi children who were infected with HIV in the medical workers’ case have died, and the case has rightfully angered the Libyan public. Families of the children told Human Rights Watch in 2005 that they had suffered discrimination and stigmatization from Libyan officials and the public. The Memorandum on Relations between the EU and Libya signed last week involves treatment for children at hospitals in Europe, which is another welcome move, as these children need and deserve proper care. It is essential that the EU steps forward now and engages with the Libyan government to develop a program to increase understanding of AIDS and to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.
In sum, as EU-Libyan relations evolve, we urge the EU to raise and press these important human rights matters with the Libyan authorities. It is imperative that the EU take these concerns into account in all discussions and in pending agreements between Libya and the EU. Failure to do so will undermine EU efforts in the domain of human rights in Libya, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.
1 EU Presidency statement on the agreement for the return to Sofia of the Bulgarian medical personnel, 24-07-2007
3 The full list of those arrested is: Al-Mahdi Humaid, Al-Sadiq Salih Humaid, Faraj Humaid, `Adil Humaid, `Ali Humaid, Ahmad Yusif al-`Ubaidi, `Ala' al-Dirsi, Jamal al-Haji, Dr. Idris Boufayed, Farid al-Zuwi, Bashir al-Haris, Al-Sadiq Qashut, Jum`a Boufayed, `Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi.
4 Human Rights Watch, “Security Agency Detains Critic,” December 4, 2006, https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2006/12/04/libya14735.htm. For an example of Dr. Boufayed’s writing, see http://www.libyaalwafa.com/idrees_abufyed/public_announcement_112106.htm.
5 A report from the last court session is at: http://www.libya-almostakbal.net/Alakhbar2007/July2007/feb_demo_trial160...