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Attacks, threats and harassment: How activists are being silenced in Libya Open in fullscreen

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Attacks, threats and harassment: How activists are being silenced in Libya

Authorities seem unable to rein in the attackers, enabling them to operate with impunity [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 July, 2017

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Activists are being physically attacked, detained, threatened, harassed, while many have disappeared in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya, a leading human rights group has found.
Human rights activists and bloggers have been physically attacked, detained, threatened and harassed, while many have disappeared in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya, a leading rights group said on Thursday. 

"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. 

Many disappearances have been carried out by armed groups, some of whom are affiliated with state authorities. 

"The Government of National Accord should hold armed groups, especially those aligned with it, accountable if they threaten, harass, or assault activists," Whitson added.

Armed groups affiliated to varying degrees with one of the three competing governments have proliferated. 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.

In western Libya, armed groups operate checkpoints, police neighbourhoods, and run prisons, but are also involved in criminal activities including smuggling, extortion, and thuggery, HRW found.

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.

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

“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,” one female activist 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 centre’s 2016 annual report, armed groups have attacked 107 media workers around the country, including physical attacks and the killing of two journalists; nine journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Libya since 2014.

Armed groups have attacked 107 media workers around the country, including physical attacks and the killing of two journalists; nine journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Libya since 2014

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.

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