Amid the indefinite postponement of elections and deep political divisions that continue to fragment Libya, the widespread clampdown on the country’s civic space has escalated in the recent period with a rife culture of impunity undermining efforts to ensure accountability for human rights abuses committed against civil society actors.
For the past several months, tensions have been running high in Libya, once again at a political deadlock since the last planned elections scheduled for December 2021 were postponed, and the parliament in the east named in February Fathi Bashagha as the new premier while the internationally recognized Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba refused to step down insisting he would hand over power only to an elected government. With threatening rhetoric, signs of mobilization of forces, and divided loyalties among the armed groups in western Libya amid the power struggle between Dbeibah and Bashagha, reports of increasingly systematic attacks on civil society and freedom of expression have emerged.
Civil society under attack
Militias and armed groups have frequently targeted media professionals and social media users simply for expressing critical views or carrying out their work. Between September and December 2021, at least 16 journalists, bloggers, and individuals expressing their opinions online were either arbitrarily arrested or have disappeared. Among them, photojournalist Saddam al-Saket was abducted in October 2021 by unidentified armed men reportedly belonging to a security body during his coverage of a sit-in by refugees in the capital Tripoli. Siraj Abdel Hafeez Al-Maqsabi, a journalist of the Libyan Al-Hayat newspaper, was kidnapped by an armed group in the eastern city of Benghazi in November 2021.
Libyan authorities have allegedly used religious and other moral discourse to arbitrarily detain and frighten civil society and individuals peacefully exerting their freedom of expression. Between November 2021 and March 2022, seven men including rights defenders, between the ages of 19 and 29, were arbitrarily arrested by the Tripoli-based Internal Security Agency (ISA) in Tripoli, in what is known as the “Tanweer case,” named after the Libyan organization that advocates for LGBTQI and women’s rights. After being detained in the ISA’s headquarters, the men were transferred to either Al-Jadida prison or the Mitiga prison, according to Amnesty International, the second of which is run by a militia known for its involvement in prolonged arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture.
Following their detention, videos of the young men shown under clear coercion were posted on Facebook in which they appeared to “confess” to being “atheist, areligious, secular, and feminist,” as well as to conspire with foreign organizations to destroy the foundations of the Libyan society.
The case led to hate speech, defamation, and incitement to violence online against these individuals, accused of spreading “contempt” for religion and being members of Tanweer, considered to be a “secret illegal movement.” On March 13, the civil group announced it had to cease its activities for fear of the safety of its members. On March 24, the ministry of religious affairs ordered all imams across Libya to deliver Friday sermons on the “dangers of atheism,” which smeared members of civil society and activists.
On March 26, the General Attorney Office in Tripoli published a statement confirming the launching of an investigation into the Tanweer movement by the ISA and their prosecution for “calling for the abandonment of religion” and “attempting to destroy one of the fundamental structures of the social order.”
During the second half of March 2022, ISA armed groups in eastern Libya arrested at least 11 peaceful protesters and a journalist in Sirte. The detained individuals had taken part in a protest organized on March 19 condemning violations committed during the 2011 NATO intervention and demanding compensation for the victims. This was the third wave of arrests against residents of Sirte since the Libyan National Army’s takeover in 2020.
A series of arbitrary arrests were carried out in eastern and western Libya in the wake of demonstrations staged on July 1 against political institutions over deteriorating living conditions and demands for elections. A number of protesters, including children, were abducted and arrested by state authorities and armed actors.
Hassan Kadano, president of the Adala for All (AFA) NGO, composed of a network of Libyan human rights lawyers and jurists with expertise in the MENA region, remarked an increase in reported violations against civil society in Libya since 2019, hinting at the war fought by forces affiliated with eastern commander Khalifa Haftar against armed groups of the former Government of National Accord between 2019 and 2020. “As the war ended in 2020, civil society became a target in a well-supported way unlike in previous years,” Kadano said to TIMEP, “human rights activists are particularly targeted because they represent the link that connects victims with the international community by bringing serious violations to light.”
In a press statement released in March, UN human rights officials expressed concern over a “deepening crackdown” on Libyan civil society, citing hate speech and defamation campaigns, threats, arbitrary arrests, violence, torture, and other forms of intimidation. Assaults against human rights defenders, activists, journalists, political actors, and other civil society actors are seemingly aimed at silencing any kind of criticism which has resulted in a shrinking civic space in the country.
Security institutions like the ISA, as well as state and non-state affiliated armed groups across the country have led an aggressive campaign against freedom of expression and association, specifically targeting independent civil society and free thought on moral and religious grounds. They have harassed, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and intimidated human rights and civic activists under the pretext of protecting “Libyan and Islamic values.”
Kadano spotlighted “the use of defamatory religious discourse” from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, acting in tandem with the government and armed groups, “to support the crackdown on freedoms.” This coordination working to vilify civil associations and individuals, he argued, serves to legitimize abuses and crimes perpetrated by the authorities supposedly to safeguard values of Libyan society.
From west to east, rival Libyan authorities seem to share the same goal of suppressing critical voices and establishing an environment of fear in a move to intimidate members of the Libyan civil society from criticizing the ruling authorities and their affiliated armed groups. These actions are part of an ongoing plan to eliminate independent local and international civil organizations in Libya, frighten peaceful activists, and halt the human rights work of those who operate in the diaspora.
In May 2022, a group of rights associations called on Libya’s eastern and western-based authorities to immediately stop their “attacks on what remains of civic space in Libya,” and to ensure that civil society organizations, activists, and journalists are able to perform their work free from undue restrictions and fears for their safety.
The Civil Society Commission (CSC) is a regulatory body established in 2018 by the former Government of National Accord in Tripoli, tasked with registering and approving NGOs in Libya. The CSC is under the Council of Ministers’ direct supervision and has sweeping powers to control funding, reject, and cancel the registration and work permits of domestic and foreign organizations. International groups are additionally required to obtain the commission’s authorization before they do any work. Such prerogatives raise concerns over the commission’s interference in the work of associations, and the civil society’s ability to operate independently as a result.
Instead of opposing attacks against civil society organizations, the CSC has supported and enabled the campaign of repression against independent civil society, with Libyan authorities imposing more arbitrary restrictions on the work and activities of organizations since late 2020. Furthermore, it has led an online vilification campaign against Libyan civil society labeling its members as “foreign agents” or “morally corrupt” perverting Libyan society. In a statement published on March 27, the commission confirmed its support for the work carried out by the national security institutions, and therefore for the repressive measures against civil associations. It also issued a declaration suspending the work of all organizations that had not complied with Decree 286, which requires them to pledge not to engage with foreign entities without prior authorization from executive governing authorities.
Both the eastern and western authorities in Libya have retained or enacted heavily restrictive laws, some inherited from Gaddafi era, along with executive orders and decrees that give armed groups sweeping powers to restrict, suspend, and dissolve civil society organizations throughout the country.
The Libyan House of Representatives adopted in October of last year a cybercrime law that significantly limits press freedom and free expression online, and allows Libyan authorities to target and punish human rights activists and defenders. The law also grants the authorities extensive power to monitor and censor published on social media under overbroad and ambiguous terms such as “public order” and “public morality.”
Numerous articles and decrees in Libyan laws overly restrict freedom of speech and expression and association. They include penalties for not respecting the Libyan nation and flag, insult to religion, and acts that aim to overthrow the political, social, or economic system of the state. Fundamental freedoms are criminalized via vaguely-worded articles of the Libyan Penal Code such as Article 206 and 207, under which targeted members of civil society risk the death penalty for establishing “unlawful” associations, and joining or establishing international organizations without government permission.
These provisions unequivocally contravene the 2011 Libyan Constitutional Declaration (Articles 14 and 15) and international standards for freedom of association in accordance with Libya’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presidential Decree 286 on regulating NGOs, introduced by the Government of National Accord in 2019, mandates onerous registration requirements, strict funding regulations, and requires advanced notification for groups wanting to organize or attend civil society events and activities. It essentially lifts the right of civil society to exist and operate freely by giving the Civil Society Commission unilateral prerogatives over the registration and operation of associations.
A ruling by the tribunal in Benghazi suspended the implementation of Decree 286 on July 18 regarding the regulation of the CSC’s work, a positive step though it still has not been withdrawn as demanded by civil society associations.
In an effort to provide a legal status for NGOs operating in Libya, national rights organizations have called on the house of representatives to pass a draft law regulating NGO work that would guarantee civil society’s independence and freedom. The draft was submitted to parliament by rights groups and Libyan public figures in October 2021. To date, the proposed bill has not been adopted.
Chaos and insecurity
The mounting deterioration of the state of freedoms and rights in Libya is intrinsically connected with the political chaos and the precarious security environment. The country’s political instability threatens to lead to violence again and jeopardize the prospect of any upcoming elections since the UN-sponsored dialogue between the Libyan parties failed to agree on a consensual constitutional framework that would allow elections to be held soon.
A months-long standoff for power has pitted the Government of National Unity (GNU) under Dbeibah against a rival administration under Bashagha. Deadly clashes have erupted in the Libyan capital on several occasions after Bashagha attempted to enter the Libyan capital in May before being forced back, with armed factions backing each side repeatedly mobilizing around the city in recent weeks.
Since the 2011 uprising and the NATO intervention that ousted former Libyan leader Gaddafi, the near collapse of state institutions among political disputing and insecurity, coupled with the spread of arms in Libya, have fostered the proliferation of militias, and emergence extremist factions and terrorist organizations.
“The threats to Libyan civil society emanate from weapons saturation, a lack of institutions, sovereignty and the rising Islamist extremism that enjoyed a renaissance in post-intervention Libya and entrenched itself in the country and captured many of its institutions,” Aya Burweila, a Libya expert focussing on extremism and conflict, articulated while discussing with TIMEP the reasons behind today’s spiral of repression.
In addition, “perpetuating [this] vicious cycle is the deprivation of Libyans from exercising their most basic civil right: the right to vote, elect and select their own governments that would be responsible to ensure their needs and rights,” Burweila added. “Without a government that is elected by Libyans and hence accountable to them, it is difficult to build an environment that truly promotes civil rights on a wholesale rather than on a piecemeal and fragmented basis,” she continued.
Within such context of continued assaults against freedom of speech and civil society work, the renewal of the mandate of the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Libya on July 4 was crucial given its important role of shedding light on human rights abuses perpetrated in Libya, including restrictions on freedom of expression and attacks against civil society groups and right activists. The FFM’s work has been vital in establishing independently facts related to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by all Libyan parties to the conflict since 2016.
The mission is the only mechanism left to investigate ongoing crimes and violations and deter further abuses by ensuring accountability. It was able to issue two high profile reports in October 2021 and in March 2022 that highlight the scale and severity of the human rights situation in Libya, and the need to conduct more probes to end the cycle of abuse and tackle impunity.
Nonetheless, it was extended for a non-extendable nine-month period despite calls from human rights organizations to renew it to at least one full year. AFA’s Kadano decried the UN Human Rights Council’s decision on the mission’s term renewal: “It was a big disappointment that the FFM was renewed for only nine months, and the worst part is that this term is final.” His NGO, along with other groups, appealed to international partners to give maximum support and allow free movement to victims and human rights defenders, to enable the mission to conduct its work properly.
“The FFM is the only remaining tool we have for truth…normally civil society fills the gap into finding where the state fails, but the systematic crackdown on civil society in Libya is not incidental or coincidental, it’s deliberate,” Elham Saudi, Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, tweeted ahead of the extension of the mission’s mandate.
The escalating crackdown against civil society has forced many organizations and activists to leave the country, suspend or reduce their activities, or even retreat from public life for fear of reprisal, with women human rights defenders particularly at risk of intimidation and violence amid the continuing conflict and the rise of extremism across the country. “Anyone who speaks up about the human rights situation in Libya is either attacked, forcedly disappeared, imprisoned or tortured by any of the two warring sides,” AFA’s head pointed out.
Without accountability and political will to mitigate violence, and no legal framework to regulate civil society work upholding freedom of expression and association, it will be near impossible to build a safe and democratic space in Libya.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.