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In Libya, Building the Rule of Law

(Tripoli, Libya) – When I first met Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, now the chairman of Libya’s Transitional National Council, in April 2009, he was the beleaguered justice minister in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, virtually the sole brave voice among senior officials demanding accountability from the country’s security services.

He had been brought in as a concession to the restive western city of Benghazi, where he was a judge for many years. Abdel-Jalil minced no words in denouncing the corruption of the Interior Ministry, which operated outside the law to detain and abuse Libyans with impunity. Commenting on the fledgling reforms under Qaddafi, he characterized Libya as a country “going through the difficult and painful pangs of birth.” Little did he know how utterly transformed Libya would find itself just over two years later.

Recently in Tripoli, I sat with Abdel-Jalil to discuss new priorities for Libya that would have been unimaginable in 2009. The challenges the new authorities face are daunting, starting with the need to gain control over thousands of men in dozens of independent militias. Libya swiftly needs to have a justice system running that can deal fairly with the crimes of today and of the past, and to rebuild basic institutions, atrophied over many decades of authoritarian rule.

Government officials recognize the need to give the anti-Qaddafi fighters, widely regarded as heroes, a reason to give up their arms.

The transitional council is discussing plans for a massive program of training, jobs, education, loans and compensation. But this commendable initiative will require time and substantial funds. Meanwhile the council shouldn’t wait until it has full command over the militias to assert its authority over the more than 5,000 detainees those militias are holding, outside any jurisdiction of Libya’s laws or justice system.

Human Rights Watchfound serious abuses when we visited these detention centers, including beatings and torture, as well as wide-scale arbitrary arrests of dark-skinned Libyans and African migrants suspected of having supported Qaddafi’s forces. These people should be transferred to official custody, where they should either be charged based on evidence of wrongdoing or released.

It’s critical for the transitional council to demonstrate that in the new Libya justice will not play favorites, and that all Libyans will get equal protection under the law. We urged Abdel-Jalil to support the independent commission for the missing, so that it can work to find missing persons on both sides of the conflict.

The council also should ensure that independent judges and prosecutors can fully and fairly investigate allegations of the worst abuses during the conflict, even if people who fought to end Qaddafi’s reign are implicated, or their victims were the Qaddafi forces. In Sirte, for example, Human Rights Watch documented the apparent execution by anti-Qaddafi forces of 53 people outside the Mahari Hotel, some with their hands and feet bound. The council should not sweep such atrocities under the rug.

Libya has made admirable headway in drafting a Transitional Justice Law and an Amnesty Law. But to build a free society, it needs to wipe out laws that authorize fines, prison sentences and even death for Libyans who “insult” or “offend” state officials, or national unity, or Islam, or who attempt to form independent political associations or media.

Qaddafi used these laws to jail political activists, lawyers and journalists — whether liberal or religious — who dared to challenge him.

The new government should no longer restrict what Libyans read or with whom they associate, in the name of either ideology or religion, and judges should ensure these rights are protected. With elections only six months away, the transitional council should, at minimum, formally suspend these restrictive articles now, to reassure Libyans that they will be free to engage in the tumultuous debate on which political competition depends, so long as it is peaceful speech.

International observers, as well as Libyan women activists, have expressed trepidation about whether future governments will adhere to promises of political and civil freedoms, or when it comes to women’s rights even move backward. Abdel-Jalil elicited global hand-wringing when, citing Shariah law, he said Libya should allow polygamy for men in place of current restrictions on this practice — a position he confirmed in our meeting.

Some people explained to me that he intended only to help the war widows, by allowing married men to take them as second wives. But a better way to help Libya’s women is to grant them the same benefits the country gives to fighters, including training, jobs and loans to support their families. This would be consistent with Libya’s transitional constitution, which grants equal civil and political rights regardless of sex and equal opportunity for every citizen. Human rights for all of Libya’s citizens, men and women, demand nothing less.

In December 2009, well before the Arab uprisings and Libya’s revolution, a young Libyan activist — a dreamer, I thought at the time — predicted, “If the United States can put a man on the moon, then we can get rid of Qaddafi.” The Libyan people have achieved the seemingly impossible; let’s hope the transitional council can help ensure that the gains for freedom are permanent.

* Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.*

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