Update: On March 2, 2014, the Libyan Criminal Court acquitted Fathi Sager and Ali Tekbali.
(Tripoli) – Libyan judicial authorities should immediately drop all criminal charges that violate freedom of speech over election poster cartoons against two Libyan National Party officials. Under the laws being applied in this case, the men could face the death penalty over posters their party displayed during the 2012 election campaign for the General National Congress.
Authorities charged Ali Tekbali, who, as the party’s policy manager, is responsible for election campaigns; and Fathi Sager, the secretary general, under four sections of the penal code, two of which could carry the death penalty. The charges include insulting Islam and “instigating division.” Human Rights Watch attended the second session of the trial, on June 16, 2013, in Tripoli.
“Why should people have to worry in the new Libya that they could face the death penalty over what someone else sees as disrespectful of religion,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should be abolishing draconian legislation, not using it as a tool to cut off free speech.”
The Libyan National Party is one of eight political parties represented in parliament.
The party printed allegedly offensive posters and pasted them in public spaces in Tripoli, in June 2012. The posters had drawings relating to social issues, including women’s role in society.
The posters depict several characters, including an older bearded man with a turban and protruding nose. The prosecution claims that one character in the drawings bears a resemblance to a controversial cartoon in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon appeared several times between 2011 and 2012, leading to protests in several countries.
Security officials raided the party headquarters in Tripoli on November 30, 2012, four months after the election. The raid was led by Abdelrahman El-Qreirah, member of the 12th security support division (siriyat al-isnad al-amni) of the Supreme Security Committee, which is nominally under the Interior Ministry.
The defendants told Human Rights Watch the officials removed material related to the election campaign and sealed the office by order of the general prosecutor.
The men are charged under article 203 for “instigating division,” article 207 with "promotion of any act against the state order", article 291 for insult to religion for “publishing satirical drawings in public spaces,” and article 318 for “publicly instigating hate” and “harming national security.” Articles 203 and 207 are among at least 30 articles of Libya’s penal code that can carry the death penalty.
The prosecution also invoked article 76, which states that “[i]n the case of multiple charges, the highest punishment will be prescribed.”
On March 6, the chamber of accusation, which reviews charges before they can go forward, confirmed the charges, according to court documents viewed by Human Rights Watch.
At the June 16 session, the presiding judge, Belgassem Maktouf, adjourned the case to October 13, because witnesses and one defendant were absent. The lawyers for both defendants told the court they would like an opinion from Libya’s grand mufti on the drawings.
Sager, an engineer by education and specialist on project management by profession, told Human Rights Watch:
I do not understand why I am even in this situation. I disagreed with the publishing of these posters in the first place, not because of their content, but I did not think we had sufficient budget for the campaign, the drawings lacked quality, and I felt someone could be offended as the man depicted is ugly. But this is absurd. These penal code articles are meant to put a muzzle on political dissent.
The articles invoked by the prosecutor violate Libya’s constitutional declaration and international human rights law and should be repealed or amended, Human Rights Watch said.
Article (14) says:
The state shall ensure freedom of opinion, freedom of speech for individuals and groups, […], freedom of communication, freedom of press, media, printing, and distribution […]
Article 19 (1) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Libya in 1976, says: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant has said that, except for very limited circumstances, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant. It has also said that “[t]he free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential.”
Article 9 (2) of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which Libya ratified in 1986, states that “[e]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle, because the inherent dignity of the person is inconsistent with the death penalty. This form of punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. International law requires countries that retain the death penalty to apply it only for the most serious crimes.
Correction: Human Rights Watch's June 20, 2013 news release stated incorrectly that article 207 of the Libyan Penal Code criminalizes insults to religion [blasphemy], with punishments up to death. In fact, article 207 instead applies to “promotion of any act against the state order” with punishment up to death. Insulting religion is under article 291, punishable by a prison term.