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(New York) – Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) should immediately revoke a new law that bans insults against the people of Libya or its institutions, Human Rights Watch said today. The law also prohibits criticism of the country’s 2011 revolution and glorification of the deposed former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The law violates Libya’s provisional constitutional covenant and international human rights law, both of which guarantee free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

“This legislation punishes Libyans for what they say, reminiscent of the dictatorship that was just overthrown,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It will restrict free speech, stifle dissent, and undermine the principles on which the Libyan revolution was based.”

Under Law 37, passed on May 2, 2012, spreading “false or vicious news” or “propaganda” that harms “military efforts to defend the country, terrorizes people, or weakens the morale of citizens” is a criminal offense, punishable with imprisonment for an unspecified amount of time. Included in “propaganda” is glorification of Gaddafi, his regime, and his sons. If the offensive statements damage the country, the law says, the offender can be sentenced to life in prison.

Anyone who does anything to “damage the February 17 Revolution” can be charged with a crime under the law and sent to prison. February 17 refers to the start of the popular uprising that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.

Charges can also be brought against anyone who “insults Islam, or the prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag.”

The ban on damaging the February 17 Revolution is apparently based on article 195 of Libya’s current penal code, drafted and implemented under Gaddafi’s rule, which bans any “damage to the great al-Fateh Revolution or its leader.” The al-Fateh Revolution brought Gaddafi to power in 1969.

Under the previous government, criticizing Gaddafi or the al-Fateh Revolution was punishable by death. Individuals were regularly imprisoned for criticizing the government, some of them under article 195 of the Libyan penal code.

“It seems the NTC has done a ‘cut and paste’ job with the Gaddafi-era laws,” Whitson said.

A group of Libyan human rights lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they will challenge Law 37 before the country’s supreme court.

Libya’s constitutional covenant, passed on August 3, 2011, includes a chapter on human rights and freedoms. Article 14 ensures freedom of opinion and speech, as well as assembly.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), governments may only restrict the right to freedom of expression to protect public morals if the restriction conforms to strict tests of necessity and proportionality and is non-discriminatory, including on the grounds of religion or belief. The newly enacted law fails to meet that test, Human Rights Watch said. Libya is a party to both the ICCPR and the African Charter.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its 2011 General Comment on the ICCPR’s article 19, held that the right to freedom of expression protects speech that might be deemed offensive or hurtful to followers of a particular religion, unless the speech in question amounts to “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” It also said that “States Parties [to the ICCPR] should not prohibit criticism of institutions.” The Human Rights Committee is considered the authoritative interpreter of the ICCPR.

Human Rights Watch called on governments supporting Libya’s transition, as well as the UN mission in Libya, to condemn the newest law strongly, and other unlawful attempts to restrict free speech, expression, and assembly.

“This law is a slap in the face for all those who were imprisoned under Gaddafi’s laws criminalizing political speech, and who fought for a new Libya where human rights are respected,” Whitson said. “Libya’s new leaders should know that laws restricting what people can say can lead to a new tyranny.”

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