(Beirut) – Human rights defenders, activists, and social media bloggers have been physically attacked, detained, threatened, harassed, and disappeared by armed groups, some of whom are affiliated with the state authorities, in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite the killing of an activist and other abuses since 2014, authorities seem unable to rein in the attackers, enabling them to operate with impunity.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 human rights defenders, political and civil rights activists, bloggers, and media workers in Tripoli and Zawiyah, in April 2017. Eleven said that since the collapse of central authority and emergence of multiple governments in 2014, militias headed by warlords, and members of armed groups in western Libya, some affiliated with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), had threatened them. Three said they had been physically attacked or ill-treated, and nine said that they feared for their lives after armed groups threatened them. They said many prominent activists had fled the country for neighboring Tunisia and elsewhere.
“Militias and other armed groups with a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset have gone after activists, bloggers, and media workers, driving many to flee the country and chilling speech for everyone else,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Government of National Accord should hold armed groups, especially those aligned with it, accountable if they threaten, harass, or assault activists.”
Armed groups affiliated to varying degrees with one of the three competing governments have proliferated. In western Libya, armed groups operate checkpoints, police neighborhoods, and run prisons, but are also involved in criminal activities including smuggling, extortion, and thuggery.
Central authority in Libya has collapsed amid armed conflict and insecurity in western Libya since July 2014. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional or have collapsed in parts of the country, including in western Libya, creating an accountability-free zone for armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.
Two activists said that working with international partners was risky because militias, and sometimes colleagues, accused them of being spies. All of the activists interviewed said that they censored themselves out of fear of the armed groups, and did not report incidents to the police because they either did not trust them or had no faith that they would respond.
Most activists interviewed in Tripoli said the armed groups in western Libya became more aggressive toward activists and media workers after July 2014, when a Misrata-led militia alliance, Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), wrested control of the capital after armed confrontations that lasted several months.
Three activists on women’s rights issues who met with Human Rights Watch in Zawiyah, a town 50 kilometers west of Tripoli, the capital, said that since 2014, women activists have become targets. One activist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said that armed groups had made clear that raising women’s rights issues of any kind crossed a red line and had threatened women’s rights activists even for raising concerns about other local issues. She said militias had summoned her many times to question her about her activities.
She said that in August 2016, a Zawiyah-based militia, the Al-Silaa unit, which is among the groups that provide security for oil terminals and oil fields, threatened her and another female activist who wanted a refinery road shut by a militia to be reopened so people could get around more easily.
“A member of the Silaa Force came to see me after I had returned home from work and threatened to shoot me if I campaigned again on this issue,” she said. “Once, a car followed me and another activist also involved in this issue, a man leaned out and fired his gun in the air to frighten us. He told my friend next time there will be a bullet for you and another for her. We also got threats via our phones and Facebook accounts warning us to remove posts critical of militias.”
One environmentalist who did not wish to be named for fear of attack said that before the 2014 conflict in Tripoli, he and others were still able to address environmental issues. He said that after the conflict began, militias aligned with the Fajr Libya alliance, which controlled Tripoli at the time, threatened him with arrest and physical attack after he reported on armed groups taking over forest areas and the impact on the forests. He said that he now censors himself as a result.
Activists at the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press (LCFP), a group with 150 registered members that monitors and reports on human rights violations against journalists and restrictions on freedom of media, and makes submissions to the UN, also expressed concern. They told Human Rights Watch that media workers did not trust the police or the judiciary and practiced self-censorship. Mohamed Najem, the group’s director, said that media workers and activists rarely filed police complaints about mistreatment by armed groups for fear of reprisals. In some cases, the police would refuse to accept a complaint or open a file.
According to the center’s 2016 annual report, armed groups have attacked 107 media workers around the country, including physical attacks and the killing of two journalists. According to the center, nine journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Libya since 2014.
Najem also underscored the danger from incitement against a particular media worker or activist in social media or on TV. “The likelihood of physical violence against media workers increases if there is such incitement,” he said.
Abdelmoez Banoon, a prominent political and civil rights activist and blogger in the post-2011 uprising period, has been missing since his abduction on July 25, 2014, in front of his home in Tripoli, by unidentified armed men linked to the Fajr Libya alliance. Banoon frequently participated in demonstrations against the presence of militias in Tripoli and publicly campaigned against the extension of the mandate of then-parliament, the General National Congress.
On February 24, 2015, the body of Intissar al-Hassaeri, a political activist and founding member of the sociocultural movement Tanweer (Enlightening) was found killed in the trunk of a car in Tripoli along with the body of a female relative. No investigation of the deaths was ever concluded, and there is no clarity about whether al-Hassaeri’s killing was linked to her work as an activist.
An armed group linked to the GNA’s Interior Ministry abducted Jabir Zain, a Tripoli-based human and civil rights activist and blogger, from a café in the capital, and subsequently forcibly disappeared him, on September 25, 2016. His whereabouts are unknown.
Both the Libyan penal code, which dates to the period of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, and decrees enacted in the transitional period following his ouster in 2011, restrict free expression. However, the interim constitution passed in 2011 guarantees “freedom of opinion, individual and collective expression, research, communication, press, media, printing and editing, movement, assembly, demonstration and peaceful sit-in in accordance with the statute.”
“By silencing critics through threats and violence, warlords and thuggish militias have found a convenient way to expand their power base at the expense of political stability,” Whitson said.
Libya’s Political Landscape
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, is one of three rival authorities in Libya claiming legitimacy. The GNA, which remains the only authority the international community formally recognizes, competes for control of territory and legitimacy in western Libya with the Government of National Salvation, which has only a minimal presence on the ground.
Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and supports a third authority, the Interim Government, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni and based in the eastern town of al-Bayda. The Interim Government is allied with the Libyan National Army forces under the command of Khalifa Hiftar. The parliament has failed to confirm a cabinet for the GNA as called for in the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) stipulations, signed by some Libyan stakeholders in December 2015, in Skheirat, Morocco.
The Fajr Libya coalition, led by militias from the coastal city of Misrata, competed in 2014 with a coalition of militias from Tripoli and the mountain town of Zintan for control of Tripoli. Fajr Libya took the upper hand and controlled parts of Tripoli until March 2017, when armed groups aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord began actively contesting their presence. The GNA-backed armed groups took full control of the capital by June.
Militias reporting to warlords continue to clash in Tripoli in July 2017, and there is a risk of attacks by rival armed groups amassing on the city’s eastern outskirts. These rival forces, mostly from Misrata but also from elsewhere in western Libya, are aligned with Khalifa Ghwell, prime minister of the self-declared National Salvation government.
Threats, Attacks Against Activists
Human Rights Watch has documented multiple attacks against activists and journalists since 2011, across Libya, including in the eastern, western, and southern parts of the country. This report focuses on the situation in western Libya.
In April 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 18 political and civil rights activists, human rights defenders, journalists, media workers, and bloggers in western Libya. Below is a sample of these cases.
Ahmed Ghedan, 36, a prominent civil and political rights activist, said he spent three months in the notorious Abu Salim Prison during the uprising against Gaddafi in 2011, because of his opposition to the leader. After the uprising, he was one of few prominent activists who continued organizing demonstrations, mostly against the presence of militias in Tripoli, calling for their replacement by formal police and army forces.
Ghedan fled to Tunisia after the onset of the armed conflict in Tripoli in 2014 that led to the takeover of that city by Fajr Libya. He said he decided to leave the country after militias affiliated with Fajr Libya threatened him and after a number of journalists, bloggers, and activists had been arrested. He was also concerned about the kidnapping of Banoon, a friend of his, by an armed group apparently linked to Fajr Libya in July 2014. Ghedan said he received anonymous threats on his Facebook account, and phone calls telling him he was “wanted.”
“The situation was terrifying,” he said. “It was no longer safe for me to remain there. Most well-known activists left the country. The militias’ aim was to monitor activists and place a gag on them.”
Ghedan returned to Tripoli in August 2015, but kept a low profile, avoiding media exposure until the arrival of the Presidency Council of the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, in March 2016. In March 2017, Ghedan co-organized a demonstration in downtown Tripoli calling for all armed groups to leave Tripoli.
Some demonstrators voiced their support for Hiftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army forces in eastern Libya aligned with the rival Interim Government. Ghedan said he was accused of being pro-Hiftar himself and was threatened in the immediate aftermath of the demonstration by several groups. He said that the Al-Buni militia, one of myriad armed groups in the capital that opposes General Hiftar, sent a representative after the demonstration and told him, “We do not want to see you in the square anytime soon.”
“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or drink out of worry,” he said. “I don’t have anyone to protect me. My friends were telling me not to talk. I now have to practice self-censorship. I am afraid for my life and afraid of getting kidnaped or disappearing altogether, so I stopped blogging. It’s too dangerous to publicly criticize militias and comment on politics. I am not allowed to cross any of their [militias/warlords] red lines.”
Ghedan says he is afraid for his family as anyone who dares to talk “will be pursued.” Two of his brothers also live in Tripoli. One, a former football player, was threatened at gunpoint to quit his work, he said. The other, who works in the judicial sector, lost his job because of Ghedan’s activism against militias.
A human rights defender, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions and attends demonstrations and workshops and focuses on women’s rights issues, met with Human Rights Watch in the western coastal town of Zawiyah, where she lives. She teaches in a secondary school in Tripoli, 50 kilometers east of Zawiyah. She said that women activists faced substantial social, religious, and family pressure to avoid researching or campaigning on certain topics:
As women’s rights activists, we are subjected to substantial religious pressure, mostly when we address domestic violence issues. I have been accused of being an apostate, an atheist, and secularist for raising women’s rights issues. If you try to address such sensitive issues you will be accused of atheism and it becomes “permissible” to kill you.
She described the influence of political groups on activists, saying that only organizations attached to political parties were able to carry out their work. She also said that religion was considered a red line and that all social issues of concern to women’s rights activists were viewed as religious issues in the current atmosphere:
If we try to address issues such as inheritance; social and family violence, for example if a brother or father is physically aggressive; justice and equality between men and women and women’s political rights, we will be shut down. In the past, it was possible to go to the police and file a complaint; that’s no longer possible. The 2014 conflict in Tripoli divided society, and women are now a target.
She said that any discussion of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty described as an international bill of rights for women, crosses the current red line. Libya ratified CEDAW in 1989, yet entered formal reservations to two articles on grounds they contradict Sharia (Islamic law). She said that she was threatened with physical harm twice, in 2014 and 2015.
“We tried to organize a demonstration calling on Libya to implement CEDAW after a young girl was raped at a hospital in 2013, but religious groups organized a counter-demonstration and shut us down,” she said. “Once there is talk about religion, no one will stand by you, everyone will stand against you.”
Alaa al-Adham, a member of the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press (LCFP) and former anchor at Al-Nabaa satellite TV, a Libyan station that opposed the GNA, said that she had been harassed and attacked multiple times during her work as an anchor. Al-Adham said that she briefly suspended her career in mid-April 2014, after the start of the military confrontations in Tripoli, until that December due to the political volatility. She said she returned to work despite pressure to quit from fearful family members. Between 2015 and 2017, the main headquarters of her network was attacked at least four times.
One attack occurred on March 31, 2016, the day that GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj moved with the Presidency Council from Tunis to Tripoli to assert his government’s presence on Libyan territory. In a climate of heightened tension in the capital, al-Adham said, members of First Force (also known as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade), a militia under the command of Haitham al-Tajouri, and nominally under the GNA Interior Ministry, entered the network headquarters at 9:30 p.m. The militia members threatened staff with arrest, beat staff members, and stole and destroyed items they found:
The militia was shooting in the air before they entered the building. There were only three women at the network at the time of the attack – myself, a make-up artist, and one editor. One of the women was in a separate location. This worried me as the armed men, with the exception of one who entered the TV network and took control, seemed intoxicated with alcohol and hashish.
I asked a big militiaman to let me go see that woman, but he pushed me with his elbow. After the militia rounded up all the staff present in the network in the newsroom, they took phones, computers, cars belonging to the network, and confiscated weapons belonging to the network’s security staff. When they finally brought in the woman, she fainted. I wanted to bring her some water, but al-Tajouri shouted at me, cursed, and threatened to hunt me down and kill me. When I spoke back to him, he threatened to jail me and shoved me with his rifle butt.
In April 2017, a Tripoli-based militia from the Bab Tajoura neighborhood attacked the network and caused extensive damage, which led the network to shut its Libya offices, Al-Adham said. She also said that since the attack on the TV network, she has received multiple threats from supporters of the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya. She said they threatened to hunt her down once they reached Tripoli alleging that they knew her phone number, passport details, and home address.
Izzaldin Alhouni, a former TV journalist and activist from the city of Sirte, told researchers he would face serious consequences if he crossed certain “red lines” of reporting with regard to militias controlling the city.
In December 2016, fighters from the Bunyan Al-Marsoos militia coalition, who are allied with the GNA, edged out the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), from the city of Sirte, which they had controlled since May 2015. Alhouni said the militia coalition regularly verbally harassed Sirte residents in the aftermath of the anti-ISIS conflict. He said:
In Sirte today, you cannot talk about human rights violations by the Bunyan Al-Marsoos, you cannot criticize them, you cannot report in total transparency. They [militia fighters] have this idea that they liberated the city from the “germ” called ISIS while sacrificing “700 martyrs.” I am afraid that they will beat me if I speak in total transparency about what’s going on there. The head of the municipality of Sirte was kidnapped for weeks, and no one dared take any measures. There is no activism currently in Sirte, no one conducting research [on the Bunyan Al-Marsoos violations].