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VII. The Death Penalty

Libya has long used the death penalty to punish a host of crimes, including acts that should be protected under the rights to freedom of association and expression.  Article 206, for example, proscribes death for the establishment of any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law, and this article has been applied in conjunction with Law 71.  Article 207 proscribes death for spreading within the country theories or principles that aim to change the basic principles of the constitutional laws or the fundamental structures of the social system or to overthrow the state’s political, social, or economic structures, or destroy any of the fundamental structures of the social system using violence, terrorism, or any other unlawful means.

The Libyan government says that a new penal code will limit the death penalty to a narrower category of crimes, but, when asked, did not provide a draft of the new code, making it impossible for Human Rights Watch to assess the changes under review.  A draft from 2004 includes the death penalty for some vaguely defined crimes that should be protected under the rights to freedom of expression and association.  Article 173 of the 2004 draft, for example, stipulates the death penalty for anyone who calls for the establishment of any association or party which is against the al-Fateh Revolution in purpose and means, or anyone who establishes, joins, administers or funds such an association or party.

Up until approximately 2000, executions were by hanging, but today the authorities use a firing line.  The legal age limit for execution is eighteen.47  The death penalty cannot be carried out on a pregnant woman or on a new mother until two months after she gives birth.48

In an October 12, 2005 memo to the Libyan government, Human Rights Watch asked how many people the government had put to death in the past two years, as well as how many people were on death row.  As of January 10, 2006, the government had not replied.

Under Libyan law, the Supreme Court must confirm all death sentences, including those imposed by the People’s Court when it was in existence; the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority must then consent before an execution is carried out.49  Despite these levels of review, some executions in Libya may violate the country’s obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which obliges State Parties that have not abolished the death penalty to apply the punishment “only for the most serious crimes.”50

Human Rights Watch interviewed one prisoner in Benghazi’s al-Kuweifia Prison who said the authorities commuted his death sentence at the last moment to life in prison.  According to Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, the People’s Court convicted him and two other men in 2001 for organizing a political group that opposed the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution.  The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences but the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority spared the prisoners’ lives at the last moment on February 10, 2002, after they had spent one hour blindfolded and bound to a wooden stake awaiting execution, al-Sharif said.  According to al-Sharif, one of the three men, `Abd al-Salam `Abd al-Salam Jum`a al-Jamaty, committed suicide on December 24, 2004.51

The discussion to ban the death penalty began in 1988 with the enactment of the Great Green Charter for Human Rights, article 8 of which says: “The goal of the Jamahiryan society is to abolish capital punishment.”  Despite repeated government statements about achieving this goal, the death penalty remains in force, and it appears likely that the new penal code will keep capital punishment for some crimes.52

On April 18, 2004, al-Qadhafi gave a speech to the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority and other high-ranking members of the judiciary in which he called for a number of legal reforms, including a reduction in the number of crimes for which the death penalty is applied.  Despite the leader’s call, the Basic People’s Congresses decided against abolishing capital punishment.

Al-Qadhafi repeated his call in a November 2004 speech to Libyan judges and law students that was broadcast on Libya’s state television.53  Abolishing the death penalty should stem from societal progress, he said, and it “should not be the result of economic, political or security pressures like the ones piled on Turkey to win a European Union membership.”54  He also explained why the people’s congresses had rejected his idea, providing a glimpse into how the leader uses the people’s congresses to approve or block measures he likes or dislikes:

I have several times called on the people’s committees to abolish the death penalty but the people’s committees did not approve, why?  Because they are not yet convinced by this measure.  “How can we abolish the death penalty if someone can stab me with a knife and escape the death sentence?  Such an individual has to fear [retribution].  He must know that if he stabs me with a knife, he will be executed and will not be in a position to repeat [his crime]…”  The Libyan people proved to be aware.  Contrary to what al-Qadhafi said, the death penalty would not be abolished.  Muammar says the death penalty needs to be abolished maybe given that we are a civilized country and maybe so that he can boast about us to Europe, the U.S., the U.N., Asia and Africa—that Libya is a civilized country which abolished the death penalty.  If Muammar is thinking in this way, we think differently, in a more realistic way.  The death penalty is to remain in place.  I heard what they said in conferences and people’s committees, and conferences were held on the issue, and they answered me in this way.  I was very pleased with their reply.  They told me: “Did you think that the death penalty is a mere law?  Out society has not yet reached a level of awareness for the death penalty to be abolished.”55

As explained in the chapter on the penal code, committees of legal experts are preparing a new penal code that, according to Secretary of Justice Bakr, will reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied to “the greatest possible extent,” leaving it in place only for “terrorism” and “the most serious crimes.”

Secretary of Bakr did not know the number of people currently on death row, and a subsequent request to the government for that information went unanswered.  According to an inmate on death row interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli’s Jdeida prison, that facility has ten units holding approximately 180 people who are sentenced to death.56

Six of the prisoners on death row during Human Rights Watch’s visit to Libya were five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death in May 2004 for allegedly infecting 426 children with the HIV virus on purpose.  On December 25, 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentences and ordered a retrial.  Human Rights Watch interviewed all six of the defendants, and each of them gave detailed and credible testimony of torture, including electric shocks, beatings to the body with cables and wooden sticks, and beatings on the soles of his or her feet.  On June 7, 2005, a Tripoli court acquitted ten Libyans (eight policemen, a doctor and a translator) accused of using torture against the six defendants.

According to Secretary Bakr, prisoners on death row “might be spared” when the new penal code comes into effect.  The new code cannot be applied retroactively (unless the execution is under review by the Supreme Court), but the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority can commute sentences on a case-by-case basis out of humanitarian concerns, he said.  In the meantime, Secretary Bakr said, the government has imposed a de facto freeze on executions until the new penal code comes into effect.

Despite this claim, the Libyan government is continuing to execute prisoners.  Two sources in Libya with knowledge of the cases who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had executed two Nigerians convicted of murder in April 2005.57

In mid-July, Libyan authorities executed four Egyptian citizens – `Arafa `Ali `Abd al-Latif, Maged al-Sa`id Mohamed, Barakat `Abd al-Zaher, and Basyouni Ahmed al-Tayeb – who were among fifteen Egyptians sentenced to death for murder in 2004.  Human Rights Watch has no information about the executed men or the other prisoners in the case.58

Also in July, Libyan authorities executed two Turkish citizens, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.  On July 14, the Ministry announced that Selim Aslan and Yunus Ozkan had been put to death for a murder committed in 1995.59

[47] Libyan Code of Criminal Procedure, article 81,

[48] Libyan Code of Criminal Procedure, article 436.

[49] Law 51, article 131, amended by Law 10.

[50] ICCPR, Article 6(2).

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, al-Kuweifia Prison, Benghazi, April 23, 2005.

[52] Law 20 (1991), Law on Enhancing Freedoms, article 4, prohibits the death penalty “except as a punishment or against he whose life represents danger or damage to society.”

[53] Private radio and television stations, as well as newspapers, are banned.

[54] “Gaddafi Wants Death Penalty Scrapped,” Reuters, November 2, 2004.

[55] “Libyan Leader Lectures Legal Profession on Abolition of Death Penalty,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, broadcast on Libyan Television, November 1, 2004.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a, Tripoli, Jdeida prison, May 11, 2005.

[57] Human Rights Watch interviews, Tripoli, May 2005.

[58] Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, “Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, in its Campaign Against the Death Sentence, Condemns the Execution of Four Egyptians in Libya,” July 21, 2005, and Libyan League for Human Rights, “Libya: Four Executions by Firing Squad,” July 26, 2005.  See also “4 Egyptians Executed in Libya without Fair Trial,” Agence France Presse, July 21 2005.

[59] Anadolu Agency, July 14, 2005.

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