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IV. Background

Libya, formally known as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, is a large country, 1,759,540 square kilometers (679,363 sq. miles), with relatively few people, just over 5.5 million.1  The vast Sahara Desert encompasses more than 90 percent of the country, and the majority of the population lives on the Mediterranean coast.

Outside powers have long overrun the country’s interior and coast, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.  The Ottoman Empire ruled the area until Italy invaded in 1911, and named the country Libya (the ancient Greek term for North Africa west of Egypt).2

The Italians faced unexpected resistance from local tribes.  They responded with brutality, setting up detention camps and deporting people to rocky islands off the Italian coast.  According to Libyan historians, the occupying Italian forces used military planes in combat for the first time in Libya.3

During World War Two, Libya was the stage for large battles between the Axis and Allied powers.  A dangerous legacy of the war is the millions of landmines planted by the Italians, Germans, British and French.  According to Libyan officials, those four countries placed between fifteen and twenty million mines, and the de-mining process continues today.4

After the war, the country fell under the control of the British and French.  It gained its independence in 1951—the first country to achieve independence through the United Nations—and a constitutional monarchy was formed under King Idris, who had returned from exile in Cairo five years before.

In 1959, Libya successfully drilled oil in the desert, and today Libya has Africa’s largest crude-oil reserves, with nearly forty billion barrels of proven reserves.  The discovery catapulted the country out of poverty.  With an annual GDP of approximately $35 billion today, it is the second wealthiest country in Africa.  At the same time, Libya’s wealth is centralized in the hands of the elite, and corruption remains a major concern.

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led a bloodless coup that toppled the pro-western King Idris, henceforth known as the al-Fateh Revolution.  A Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) ran the country, headed by a twenty-eight-year-old officer, Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi.  The RCC, eventually replaced by the Arab Socialist Union, abolished the monarchy and declared the Libyan Arab Republic.  It promoted Arab unity, the liberation of Palestine, the removal of foreign militaries and social justice after eighteen years of corruption under the king.

The RCC adopted a Constitutional Proclamation on December 11, 1969, which guaranteed some rights, such as the right to work, health care and education, as well as religious freedom and the inviolability of the home.  Freedom of opinion was guaranteed, but only “within the limits of public interest and the principles of the Revolution.”5  The proclamation was intended as a provisional measure until the adoption of a full constitution, but Libya is still governed under this proclamation and a series of subsequent laws deemed to have constitutional weight.

Al-Qadhafi quickly consolidated power to become the country’s undisputed leader, and he retains that position today.  Despite currently holding no official title, the man called “Brother Leader” and “Guide of the Revolution” controls all major aspects of Libya’s political and economic life.

Throughout the 1970s al-Qadhafi developed his unique political philosophy, a hybrid of Socialism and Islam called the Third Universal Theory, which sought independence from communism and capitalism.  In 1975 he wrote the Green Book, since translated into dozens of languages, which presents the theory of a system of government called Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses.”

According to the Green Book, the Jamahiriya system is the final evolution of democracy.  Parliaments are “a misrepresentation of the people,” and parliamentary governments are “a misleading solution to the problem of democracy.”  Political parties are considered “contemporary dictatorships.”6

Promoting the principle of “direct democracy,” the Jamahiriya obliges all citizens to participate in Basic People’s Congresses in their local districts, where they may debate all matters of government, from budgets to defense.  For al-Qadhafi and the current Libyan government, this system is the most advanced form of democracy because citizens do not elect representatives but participate themselves directly in governmental affairs.

Consistent with this thinking, a new law banned political parties in 1972.  Law 71, still in force today, bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution.  The authorities have imprisoned hundreds of Libyans for violating the law.

In 1973, police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed, or the authorities feared could oppose, the new system.  In what some Libyans call a cultural revolution to “educate the masses,” police and security forces rounded up academics, lawyers, students, journalists, Trotskyists, communists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others considered “enemies of the revolution.”  Some of them disappeared.

In 1977, Libya adopted the Declaration of the People’s Authority, which enshrined the direct democracy system as the “absolute and decisive solution to the problem of democracy.”  It established the system of people’s congresses by which the country would implement direct democracy and changed the country’s name to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

According to the system, Basic People’s Congresses exist in every local administrative unit (sha`biyya).  Each Basic People’s Congress elects a People’s Committee (lajna sha`biyya lil –mahalla) as an executive body that appoints a local representative to the General People’s Congress (Mu’tamar al-Sha`b al-`Amm), the equivalent of a national legislative assembly.  The General People’s Congress is run by people’s committees, which are the equivalent of ministries.  Each committee is run by a secretary, which is the equivalent of a minister.

In addition, a parallel mechanism permeates all aspects of Libya’s economic, social, and political life.  Throughout the various people’s congresses, workers’ unions, universities, state companies, and the media, the powerful Revolutionary Committees Movement maintains true ideological and political control.7

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, state repression increased in a wave of revolutionary fervor. Authorities labeled critics “stray dogs” and imprisoned or “disappeared” them.  The state assumed control of religious institutions, which contributed to the rise in militant Islamic resistance to al-Qadhafi that emerged in the 1980s.

U.S. and British military forces and companies began leaving Libya almost immediately after 1969, and the Libyan government forced out other companies and seized their assets in the following years.  In December 1979, the U.S. declared Libya a state-sponsor of terrorism, and the country remains on that list today.  The Libyan embassy in Washington, called a People’s Bureau, closed in May 1981.

In August of that year, Libyan fighter jets engaged U.S. Air Force planes flying in airspace north of Libya’s coast.  The U.S. F-14s shot the Libyan jets down.  The U.S. subsequently banned U.S. citizens from traveling to Libya, prohibited Libyan crude oil imports and imposed other trade restrictions—restrictions that stayed in place until 2004.

Libyan relations with the United Kingdom soured after an incident in April 1984.  During an opposition demonstration outside the People’s Bureau in London, someone from inside the Bureau apparently shot and killed a British policewoman and wounded ten others.

In April 1986, a bomb exploded at the La Belle disco in Berlin, killing three people—two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman—and wounding approximately 250.8  U.S. President Ronald Reagan blamed al-Qadhafi and ordered air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi, including on al-Qadhafi’s residence.  The strikes killed forty people, reportedly including al-Qadhafi’s adopted daughter Hana.  The U.S. also imposed additional economic sanctions due to “Libyan complicity” in the Berlin attack.9

In 1988 Libya saw slight reform, including the release of political prisoners.  In June, the General People’s Congress adopted the Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Jamahiriyan Era, a document inspired by Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, who “incarnates through his thought and labor the aspirations of the oppressed and the enslaved throughout the world.”10  The Charter recognized some basic rights and prohibited any punishment that “would violate the dignity and the integrity of a human being.”  In particular, the Charter guaranteed the independence of the judiciary (article 9), freedom of thought (article 19), equality between men and women (article 21), and stated that the goal of Jamahiriya society is to abolish capital punishment—a goal not yet achieved.  That year Libya became a state party to the first Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and, in 1989, it signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The door of reform closed quickly, and 1989 saw another wave of internal repression.    According to Amnesty International, which had visited the country in 1988, the government instituted “mass arbitrary arrest and detention, ‘disappearances,’ torture, and the death penalty.”11

One of the main causes of the crackdown was the return to Libya of Libyan citizens from Afghanistan, where they had gone to fight Soviet forces.  Some of them returned home with hopes of overthrowing al-Qadhafi and installing a government based on shari`a (Islamic law).  The returnees formed the basis for the armed Islamic resistance al-Qadhafi faces today.

Libya’s international isolation increased around this time.  In December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.  This was followed by the bombing of UTA flight 772 over Niger in 1989, killing 170.  The U.S. and European governments blamed al-Qadhafi for the attacks.

In January 1992, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 731, which ordered Libya to surrender the suspects in the two plane bombings, cooperate with the investigations, pay compensation to the victims’ families, and cease all support for terrorism.  This was followed in March 1992 by Security Council Resolution 748, which imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya.  The embargo had a strong impact on Libya’s economy, and was then strengthened by Security Council Resolution 883 in November 1993, which imposed a limited assets freeze and an embargo on select oil equipment.

By the mid-1990s, various Islamic groups in Libya were better organized, among them the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and they engaged in military hostilities against the state, particularly in the country’s east.12  Al-Qadhafi survived an assassination attempt in 1996.

In June 1996 an incident at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli left a still unknown number of prisoners dead.  According to a former prisoner interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Libyan human rights groups abroad, the guards responded to an uprising over prison conditions by going from cell to cell, shooting prisoners as they went, leaving hundreds of prisoners dead.13  The government claims that the police responded appropriately after an uprising and an escape attempt in which approximately 400 prisoners escaped, some of them leaving Libya.  As of August 2005, the government officially had not released information about the incident or the names of the dead.

The Libyan government told Human Rights Watch in May 2005 that it had established a committee to investigate the incident.  According to the head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, Col. Tohamy Khaled, the committee will make its findings public when the work is done, but he did not specify a timeframe.  The approximately 400 prisoners escaped Abu Salim in four incidents, Col. Khaled said.14

In 1998, al-Qadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, aged thirty-three, founded the Qadhafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, since renamed the Qadhafi Foundation for Development, a nongovernmental organization with close ties to the government.  The organization’s human rights program has criticized human rights violations in the country, such as torture and the imprisonment of people for political views.

The next year, Libya improved its relations with Western Europe and the United States by surrendering two Libyan nationals suspected of blowing up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie.   A court with Scottish judges in The Netherlands subsequently acquitted one of the men and sentenced the other, `Abd al-Basit al-Megrahi, to life in prison in 2001.15

In 2001 and 2002, the authorities released approximately 300 prisoners, some of whom the government had imprisoned due to peaceful political activity since 1973.  The government also slowly began to inform families of relatives who had died in prison, although they rarely provided information on the cause of death or provided the mortal remains.  According to Libyan groups abroad, more than 250 families are still missing relatives in prison.16  According to the Qadhafi Foundation, there are “numerous cases where detainees lost their lives in situations and events that are bound by obscurity.”17

Libya’s relations with the U.S. warmed during this time.  Negotiations on diplomatic relations had begun under the Clinton administration in the late-1990s and slowed when George W. Bush became president.  They picked up again after the attacks by al-Qaeda in New York and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001.  Al-Qadhafi condemned the attacks and urged Libyans to donate blood.  According to media reports, Tripoli gave the CIA files on Libyans with alleged links to international terrorism.18  Intelligence ties between the two countries have continued to grow since that time, with the CIA opening a station in Libya, according to Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi.19  “We have contacts with our counterparts on the American side continuously,” the Secretary of Public Security (Minister of Interior) Nasr al-Mabrouk told Human Rights Watch.20

One reason for the apparent turnaround was the need for foreign investment.  After years of sanctions, Libya needed capital to develop its vast oil reserves.  But the main motivation was al-Qadhafi’s concern for the Islamic resistance he faced at home.  The September 11 attacks offered him a chance to join the west’s “War on Terror” and to justify security measures against these groups—and other critics—at home.

In this way, September 11 was a paradigm shift.  The Libyan government had previously exerted control in the name of the al-Fateh Revolution, and arrested opponents because, the government said, they failed to understand the concepts of popular power and direct democracy.  Since 2001, the government’s rhetoric has hinged on anti-terrorism concerns.  Government officials repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that all individuals in prison on political charges were “terrorists” who threatened the security of the state.  An armed Islamic opposition does indeed exist, but the government has used the reality of these armed groups to justify silencing peaceful dissent in the name of its “anti-terror” fight.

On September 25, 2001, President Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets in the U.S. of al-Qadhafi’s most serious domestic challenge, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is trying to overthrow him using violent means.  In December 2004 the U.S. State Department placed the LIFG on its list of terrorist groups.21  The State Department later elevated the LIFG to an al-Qaeda affiliate.

In return, Libyan officials have provided the U.S. and other countries with valuable intelligence about Libyans who had fought in Afghanistan and then followed Osama bin Laden to Sudan.  The chief of Libya’s External Security Agency, Musa Kusa, reportedly provided a list of Libyans who had trained with al-Qaeda.  According to Secretary of Public Security al-Mabrouk, Libya is a “local partner” in the fight against terrorism.  “We are more capable of understanding these people because we know the mentality of these people,” he said.22

Evidence of the cooperation can be found in flight records Human Rights Watch obtained for two private planes leased by the CIA.  The logs show fifteen flights through Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, formerly part of Wheelus Air Base, which the U.S. ran until al-Qadhafi seized power.  One of the planes made several round trips between Washington and Tripoli. The second plane flew in September 2004 from Tripoli to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. government runs a detention facility.

In 2005, the CIA reportedly agreed to offer counter-terrorism training to Libyan security personnel.   The U.S. also has reportedly delivered into Libyan custody some anti-al-Qadhafi Libyans it had captured in its global campaign against terrorism, as well as allow Libyan agents to interrogate Libyans held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.23  In November, the CIA’s deputy director, Vice Adm. Albert M. Calland III, reportedly visited Tripoli for secret meetings with al-Qadhafi and Libyan intelligence officials on ways to expand Libya’s role in fighting terrorism.24

In the past two years, the United States and Libya have also resolved the two main sticking points between them: Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and compensation for victims of the Pan Am and UTA bombings.  In August 2003, Libya accepted “responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials” for both flights, and paid compensation to the families.25  The U.N. lifted sanctions on September 12, 2003.

On December 19, 2003, Libya announced it would give up its WMD programs and limit its long-range missiles.26  Libya said it would comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention, sign the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol and adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  This led to what the State Department called “gradual, step-by-step normalization” of U.S.-Libyan relations.27

Libya’s renunciation of WMD also led to an intelligence windfall for the United States.  Libya provided the U.S. government with a list of black-market suppliers, front companies and transporters in the WMD market, a U.S. official said.28

The United States opened an Interests Section in Tripoli on February 8, 2004, upgraded to a U.S. Liaison Office in June 2004.  Libya opened its Interest Section in Washington on July 8, 2004.  The United States lifted the travel ban and sanctions that had blocked trade and investment and unblocked Libya’s frozen assets, opening the door for U.S. oil companies to return.  Full diplomatic relations are currently on hold because Libya remains on the list of states that sponsor terrorism; in turn, it has not paid the victims’ families the last installment of compensation.  The United States is also concerned about an alleged Libyan plot to kill then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.29

Libya’s relations with Europe also have improved.  In April 2004 al-Qadhafi visited Europe on an official trip for the first time in fifteen years.  Tony Blair, Jaques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi have all visited Tripoli.  Cooperation with Italy and the European Union has focused on stemming the flow of migrants and refugees who travel through Libya to Europe.

In August 2004, Libya agreed to pay $35 million in compensation to more than 150 non-U.S. victims of the 1986 bomb attack on the La Belle disco in Berlin.  Libya said it would pay compensation for the two U.S. deaths when Washington compensates Libya for the lives and property destruction from the U.S. air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi after the disco attack.

In October 2005, the Libyan and British governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding that allows Britain to deport individuals to Libya if the Libyan government gives diplomatic assurances the deportees will not be subjected to torture.  The U.K. had signed a similar agreement with Jordan in August. British home secretary Charles Clarke called the Libyan MOU an example of the “effective international cooperation that we need in order to confront and defeat the type of terrorism we now face.”30  Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups protested that the agreements with Jordan and Libya violate the international prohibition against sending persons to countries where they face a serious risk of torture.31

Over the past two years, the Libyan government has initiated some important reforms, such as the release of some political prisoners, improved prison conditions, and expanded human rights training for police. But Libya remains tightly controlled from the top, with little room for individuals to criticize the ruling ideology or government leaders, or to form independent organizations. Although there are increasing numbers of citizen’s groups, such as unions, professional associations and charitable groups, they are all controlled to varying degrees by the government.  The media is not free.  The law states that individuals may express their opinions only in the people’s congresses and in the state-controlled mass media, and only if the views are not contrary to the “people’s authority” or the principles of the revolution. As the Great Green Charter for Human Rights states, “Democracy means popular power, not popular expression.”  Political prisoners remain in jail for having peacefully expressed critical views.

[1] The vast majority of the population is either Arab or Berber, and almost all are Sunni Muslim.

[2] The Greek word comes from the Egyptian term “Lebu,” which referred to the Berbers who lived East of the Nile River.  They also used it to refer to all of Africa.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Prof. Dr. Muhammad T. Jarari, Director, Libyan Studies Centre, Tripoli, May 5, 2005.  The Libyan Studies Centre has built an impressive archive of Libyan history, including an oral history project with 10,000 interviews.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Zakaria Nuri, Director, Explosives Office, Public Administration for Civil Protection, Tripoli, May 7, 2005.  According to Col. Nuri, his office is in need of demining equipment and training.  As of December 2004, landmines and unexploded ordinance from World War Two had killed 2,368 people and wounded 1,762 others, he said.

[5] Constitutional Declaration of December 11, 1969, article 13.

[6] The Green Book is available in English at, as of December 16, 2005.  The website of the World Center for the Study and Research of the Green Book, an important Libyan institution, is available at

[7] See the website of the Revolutionary Committees Movement in Arabic, English, French and Spanish at  According to the site, the movement “incites the masses to exercise power.”

[8] On November 13, 2001, a German court convicted four people, including a former staff member of the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin, in connection with the bombing.  Libya agreed to pay compensation to the non-U.S. victims in August 2004.

[9] U.S. Department of State, Background Note: Libya, December 2004.

[10] Great Green Charter for Human Rights in the Jamahiriyan Era, Preamble.

[11] Amnesty International, Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality, August 2004.

[12] Other militant Islamic groups fighting the Libyan government include: the Islamic Movement of Martyrs, Libyan Jihad Movement and Islamic Movement for Change.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Hussein al-Shafa’i, Washington D.C., June 29, 2004.  The Libyan opposition group National Front for the Salvation of Libya has published a report on the killings.  See National Front for the Salvation of Libya, “A Detailed Report of the Abu Sleem Prison Massacre in 1996,” available at, as of December 4, 2005.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with Internal Security Agency head Col. Tohamy Khaled, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.  Col. Kheled said that prisoners escaped from Abu Salim on four occasions around that time: July 1995, December 1995, June 1996 and July 2001.

[15] A panel of Scottish judges tried the Libyans in the Netherlands under Scottish criminal law and procedure.  In the summer of 2005, some Scottish officials began to question elements of the case.

[16] According to a group based in Geneva, Human Rights Solidarity, 258 families are missing relatives.

[17] Human Rights Society of the Al-Qadhafi Foundation, “Reservations and Demands,” July 17, 2003.

[18] Ken Silverstein, “How Kadafi Went from Foe to Ally,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2005.

[19] Ken Silverstein, “Kadafi’s Son Calls for Closer Ties With U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2005.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Secretary of Public Security Nasr al-Mabrouk, Tripoli, April 26, 1005.  For a speech by Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi on terrorism, see, accessed October 25, 2005.

[21] John C. K. Daly, “Libya and al-Qaeda: A Complex Relationship,” The Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, Volume 3, Issue 6, March 24, 2005, available at, as of December 14, 2005.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with Secretary of Public Security Nasr al-Mabrouk, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[23] Ken Silverstein, “How Kadafi Went From Foe to Ally,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2005.

[24] Ken Silverstein, “Top CIA Official Met With Kadafi in Libya,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2005.

[25] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1506.  Libya agreed to pay the families of victims $10 million each—$4 million after the lifting of U.N. sanctions, another $4 million after the lifting of U.S. sanctions based on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)  and  the last $2 million  when the U.S. State Department takes Libya off its list of states sponsoring terrorism.  As of December 2005, Libya had paid the first two installments but was withholding the final $2 million because it remains on the State Department list.

[26] Libya agreed to limit its missiles, according to the Missile Technology Control Regime, to a range of at least 300 km and a payload of at least 500 kg.

[27] Statement by Acting Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, “Libya: Progress on the Path Toward Cautious Reengagement,” March 16, 2005.

[28] Testimony of William J. Burns, Acting Under Secretary for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Committee on International Relations in the U.S. House of Representatives, March 8, 2005, available at, as of December 1, 2005.

[29] In July 2004, a U.S. federal court sentenced Abdulrahman M. Alamoudi, a U.S. citizen and founder of the American Muslim Council, to twenty-three years in prison for illegal business dealings with Libya related to a plot to kill then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.  The Saudi government arrested thirteen suspects in connection with the case, including four Libyan intelligence agents whom Abdullah pardoned in August after he became king.  The two countries severed diplomatic ties in December 2004, but resumed them in December 2005.

[30] “UK Signs Libya Deportation Deal,” BBC, October 18, 2005, available at, accessed October 25, 2005.

[31] Human Rights Watch, “U.K.: Torture a Risk in Libya Deportation Accord,” October 18, 2005, available at

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