(New York) - The Libyan government should investigate allegations of sexual harassment in a state-run residence for women who had been orphaned instead of charging the journalist who reported the story with criminal defamation, Human Rights Watch said today.
On October 21, 2009, Mohamed al-Sareet, a Libyan journalist, wrote on Jeel Libya, an independent news website based in London, about a rare demonstration in Benghazi by women who live in a state-run care residence for women and girls who were orphaned as children, calling for an end to sexual harassment they said they had experienced in the center. The demonstrators were also demanding the return of the center's former director. After the article appeared, the police and then the General Prosecutor's office summoned al-Sareet for interrogation and charged him with criminal defamation.
"Libya should investigate the alleged abuse and ensure the protection of these women instead of intimidating the man who wrote about it," said Sarah Leah Whitson. "A journalist should not have criminal sanctions hanging over his head for doing his job."
In the October 21 demonstration, at least 10 women and girls between the ages of 18 and 27 who live in the care center walked through the streets of Benghazi to the Center's governing body, the Social Solidarity Center, holding up placards calling for the reinstatement of the Care Center's former director, who marchers said had treated them well and protected them.
Several of the women told Libyan journalists that officials who run the center had sexually harassed them and allowed security officers into their rooms at night. One woman said that an official had propositioned her and threatened to beat her if she did not comply. Besides Jeel Libya another Libyan website, Libya al Youm, published photos of the demonstration and interviews with some of the residents.
On October 22, local police summoned al-Sareet to the Hadaek police station for questioning. On October 26, the General Prosecutor's Office summoned him for further questioning and charged him with criminal defamation, which carries a prison sentence. Jeel Libya's director told Human Rights Watch that al-Sareet had received threats to burn down his house to intimidate him into retracting his article.
On October 23, some of the women who had been quoted called another Libyan news website, Al Manara, and denied that administrators had sexually harassed them. Libya al Youm reported that officials had threatened to expel those who demonstrated from the center, and pressured them to retract their statements and to sue al-Sareet for slander. On October 26, Quryna, one of two private newspapers affiliated with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gaddafi, published an article in which several of the women denied that any sexual harassment had taken place. "We are now without honor in the eyes of society after what this journalist did," the paper quoted them as saying.
During a visit to Libya in 2005, Human Rights Watch found widespread official denial that violence against women exists in Libya, and a lack of adequate laws and services, leaving victims of violence without effective remedies and deterring reporting. A group of students conducting a study on sexual harassment in Tripoli in April 2009 had great difficulty in persuading women to talk about their experiences, since some felt it would bring shame on them to discuss it.
Human Rights Watch said that countries have a duty to investigate and prevent sexual harassment, a form of violence against women. Libya was among the first countries to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, Article 8 of which requires state parties to adopt all necessary measures to prevent, punish, and eradicate all forms of violence against women. Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination prohibited by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Libya is party. Furthermore, both the African Charter and the ICCPR require Libya to protect freedom of expression. Journalists should be able to report freely without fear of imprisonment for their writings.
"Official denial and reprisals against journalists is not the way to protect women in Libyan society," said Whitson, "Women should be encouraged to bring forward complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of violence so the government can act to prevent abuses."