Report : CHRDA condemns the suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Libya

The Defender Center for Human Rights condemns the suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and calls on the Libyan authorities to respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and prevention of enforced disappearances

Paris – 9 September 2020

The Defender Center of Human Rights (DCHR) strongly condemns the repressive response of the Libyan authorities in Western and Eastern Libya to peaceful protesters in various cities across Libya, demanding their legitimate grievances be addressed, including access to basic services. The DCHR condemns the excessive force used against protestors, journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) by the Libyan authorities and its affiliated armed groups and calls on the Libyan authorities in West and East to: (i) release detainees arrested in the context of the protests and forcibly disappeared persons; (ii) abolish all restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and movement, including on the media; (iii) launch immediate investigations into the human rights violations committed during the suppression of the protests, publicly announcing  the results of the investigation; (iv) hold all those responsible for the commission of human rights violations committed in the context of the protests to account; and (v) put an end to the phenomenon of impunity that has become rampant in Libya.

At the beginning of August, intense calls to protest against worsening living conditions and corruption erupted in several cities across Libya. Instead of carrying out urgent and necessary reforms in the public services system, taking into consideration the grievances of Libyan citizens and addressing various deficiencies, the Libyan authorities used the old security techniques, inciting violence against those calling for protests on social media, accusing them of treason and harming the country’s national security. Calls for protest in Western Libya were well received by Libyan citizens who have been suffering for years amid the collapse of the public services system, in addition to pervasive human rights violations. A Libyan HRD, who chose to remain anonymous due to security concerns, remarked, “Electricity cuts were prevalent before 4 April 2019, but the attack on the capital has definitely exacerbated the situation. While the Libyan people suffer from a lack of basic needs, I see the authorities pouring money into armed militias and mercenaries. There is no authority in Libya that cares about the citizens.”

West Libya Demonstrations 

On 23 August, Tripoli, Al-Zawiya and Misrata witnessed peaceful demonstrations, in which hundreds of individuals took part to protest against widespread corruption, the poor performance of the Presidential Council (PC) and the abysmal living conditions, including the lack of basic services such as the provision of electricity, water and fuel, in addition to cash shortages in banks and the deterioration of healthcare service in light of COVID-19. The response of the Libyan authorities and its affiliated armed groups was to deploy heavily armed forces to intimidate those protesting, arresting individuals and groups that gathered to head towards Martyrs’ Square, using excessive force and firing live ammunition indiscriminately to disperse protesters, which resulted in several injuries, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of an unknown number of protestors, including the organizers of the protests.

On 23 August, the Ministry of Interior of the Government of National Accord (GNA) issued a statement denying responsibility for failing to protect protestors shooting and wounding some of demonstrators, the statement accused people, describing them as infiltrators, with shooting, the same allegations used by Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the (PC)  and Prime Minister of GNA in a televised speech. Despite the Ministry’s admission it had spotted these infiltrators and “recognized them,” it did not announce their identities neither did it arrest them. The Ministry of Interior also did not announce who kidnapped the demonstrators and their whereabouts. In addition, on 26  August, the Joint Military Operations Room in the Western Region issued a statement attacking the demonstrators, describing them as “mobists” and criticizing Lawyers Syndicate’s statement and demonstration for supporting the demonstrators in their right of freedom of expression and peaceful protest. Tripoli witnessed on late night of August 24, a massive arrest campaign of activists organizing the movement from their homes, before the crackdown worsened in the following days to witness the kidnapping of a large number of activists organizing the  23 August  movement and journalists. On 28 August, the Ghout al-Shaal region, west Tripoli, witnessed the killing of Mr Sanad Omar Al-Megrahi, when gunmen opened fire on protesters.

The list of abducted activists, which was documented by Defender Center, includes: 11 activists , in addition to a journalist. So far, no party has revealed its responsibility for abducting the protesters and activists, the location, the number and fate of the protestors have not been disclosed. A number of human rights defenders who were contacted by (DCHR) believed that the responsible party for the abducting the activists were the brigade known as (Al-Nawasi). While this brigade is assumed to be loyal to GNA and receives orders from it, several sources believe that (Al-Nawasi) has become one of the power centers involved in the internal political conflict in west Libya. “The militias enjoy wide influence in west Libya, and each militia controls a certain area. Ultimately, there is no single central authority that have the control for all these militia,” said another Libyan human rights defender.

In this context, (DCHR) emphasizes that Libyan authorities failure of ignoring repetitive calls of human rights organizations, during the past years, to disarm militias and restructure its security services, has contributed to its brutality and conflict with the “official” authorities in the “legitimate” right to use force, and at the end, the Libyan citizen pays a high price in terms of his security, safety and basic rights. This also applies to the use of foreign mercenaries brought in by conflict parties and their respective supporters. The irony is that each side ignores the violations of the armed groups loyal to it, and sometimes even ignores their existence, while they rush to denounce the “violations” of other armed groups. For example, on 26 August, the (PC) issued a statement condemning the violations of “outlaw militias” in Sirte, while was completely silent on the violations committed by armed groups loyal to it in Tripoli, and vice versa.

In another dramatic irony, the Interior Minister of GNA, MR Fathi Pasha Agha, condemned, in a statement issued on 27 August, the attack on demonstrators by armed groups who used machine guns, fired indiscriminately, and kidnapped protesters and forcibly disappeared them. The minister’s statement indicated that these armed groups and authorities responsible for them were monitored, describing them as “a group of mobs who do not represent the honorable heroes of Operation Burkan Alghadab and do not respect the blood and honor of innocent peaceful demonstrators.” The (PC) issued a decision to suspend the Minister of Interior from work and refer him to investigation just the day after the release of Pasha Agha statement; Pasha Agha welcomed the decision and demanded the investigation session be public. Pasha Agha was questioned on 3 September, in a closed session behind the doors, and the decision to suspend him from work was canceled.

And in an attempt to control street movement and prevent demonstrators from gathering and continuing their peaceful protests; the authorities in Tripoli refused to grant permits for the demonstration, and on 26 of August the (PC) issued a decision to impose a curfew for a period of four days, completely on Friday and Saturday every week, movement between cities was prohibited, claiming the reason for the curfew was the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to local human rights organizations, 21 detainees were brought before the Public Prosecutor’s office in Tripoli in the evening of 2 September, 13 of them were released and they were charged of participating in demonstration without state permit. The others, eight people were detained in Al-Jadida prison for another six days, including 7 organizers of demonstrations on the charge of demonstrating without a permit, in addition to an Egyptian man accused of infiltrating and residing in Libya without permission, as well as demonstrating without a permit.

East Libya Demonstrations 

Parallel to the call for demonstrations in western Libyan cities, preparations for a protest movement were under organizing in Benghazi and Sirte. The demands raised by the demonstrators varied, as some demanded the elimination of rampant corruption and poor public services, while others demanded the return of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to political life. This is according to testimonies obtained by (DCHR) from Libyan human rights defenders who are closely following developments in eastern Libya.

The authorities in Benghazi were able to prevent demonstrations through pre-emptive action by closing the Kish Square with security men backed by armed cars with heavy weapons before 23 August to intimidate the demonstrators, a Libyan human rights group operating in east Libya confirmed that the security services in Benghazi arrested, during the period of preparation and calling for the protest, a group of activists who called for demonstrations, The authorities also launched a widespread smear campaign against the organizers of the demonstrations on social media and traditional media, including television and radio stations.

The list of those detainees includes a blogger from Benghazi, who was arrested on 11 August by an armed group, while he was broadcasting live on his Facebook page, and during that time he chanted slogans in support of the former regime. On 18 August, the Internal Security Agency in Benghazi arrested, a prominent tribal figure loyal to Gaddafi, and on 20 August, the Special Task Force loyal to the General Command of the Libyan National Army arrested four citizens arbitrarily for supporting Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

In Sirte, the demonstrators were able to gather and demonstrate on August 23, raising the above-mentioned demands. The security apparatus known as the “Criminal Investigation Agency CID ” dealt fiercely with the peaceful demonstrators, fired live bullets to disperse them, and arrested about 65 protesters. Two days later, the demonstrations renewed, but the main demand at the time was the release of the detainees. The CID forces continued to use excessive force and arrested about 15 others. One of CID cars ran over a protester called Nasir Awaidat A-Gaddafi and killed him, CID forces also injured at least 7 others.

(DCHR) obtained testimonies from local human rights organization in eastern Libya, which documented some cases of detention and enforced disappearance in Sirte. It reported that on 11 August, the Internal Security Agency arrested three people from same family, two were later released, while the fate of the third person remains unknown. On 25 August, city of Sirte witnessed crackdown  on the demonstrations by raids on homes of protesters and arresting them, dozens of them were transferred to Benghazi. The number of detainees was about 15.

Moreover, a human rights defender stated that the city of Qubbah, the birthplace of Agila Saleh, the Speaker of Libya Parliament located in eastern Libya, witnessed demonstrations on August 25 protesting against corruption and delaying payment of salaries and calling for better living conditions, but the security forces were soon able to suppress and disperse them.

The authorities in Sirte refused to release the detainees before September 1; to prevent them from demonstrating to celebrate the anniversary of first of September, “Gaddafi coup anniversary”. On 25 August, the authorities in Sirte cut off communications and internet throughout the city, to prevent the protesters from organizing themselves and from communicating with the outside world. On the morning of 3 September, communications and internet services were restored in Sirte, while the authorities have not released any of the detained protesters so far.

A Libyan human rights defender said “Gaddafi’s security system has been resurrected and returned to work especially with ferocity in eastern Libya, which forces Libyans there to coexist with permanent fear and intimidation in the shadow of total impunity”. Another Libyan human right defender said” even in western Libya, the experiences and men of Gaddafi intelligence system have been used in building the security services that prioritize tracking down human rights defenders and peaceful activists. It is another paradox that characterizes the complex Libyan scene; the men of the former regime involved in human rights violations have now assumed leadership positions in state security services in new Libya. They provide their services to the authorities in the East and the West and practice what they excel at, the suppression of all: advocates of reform, peaceful activists, human rights defenders, and even supporters of the former regime themselves”.

(DCHR) strongly condemns all Libyan parties for directing weapons to peaceful citizens, killing some of them, arbitrarily arresting dozens, and forcibly disappearing dozens of others just days after the announcement of the ceasefire initiative and waiting of its results. in addition to issuing inflammatory statements whose vocabulary is inspired by the dictionary of former regime Before February 17th; instead of listening to citizens’ complaints and taking the necessary measures to improve the standard of living and services, eliminating corruption, promoting and protecting human rights, and holding the responsible parties and bodies accountable for committing violations. (DCHR) believes that the violations committed during these demonstrations are considered the tip of the iceberg; and the disproportionate use of force and indifference to the life, security and safety of peaceful protesters that Libya has witnessed in the East and West is an expected result of the failure of all local and international parties to address the file of human rights violations since 2011.

(DCHR) also expresses its deep concern about situation in Libya, which has become the scene of a civil war, where regional and international players view Libya as a geopolitical and economic game, ignoring the suffering of its people. About 10 years after the outbreak of a promising revolution for democracy, equality and human rights, Libya has one of the worst human rights records in the region and the world, as the country witnesses the failure of all de facto authorities to comply with their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law while perpetrators are protected with complete impunity.

Days ago, Libyan authorities celebrated the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance in their own way. by adding untold numbers of citizens to the list of victims of enforced disappearance, during its suppression of peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of Libyan families have suffered from the kidnapping of their sons and daughters over the years following the February 17 revolution. There is no accurate estimate of the number of victims, which included human rights defenders, journalists, and parliamentarians, but some estimates suggest that the victims of enforced disappearance in Libya were about 10,000 disappeared, before the demonstrations of 23 August. It is worth noting that the Defender Center’s first annual report documented the exposure of human rights defenders in Libya to kidnapping and enforced disappearances, among other violations. Due to the serious threats that human rights defenders face in Libya; all defenders we contacted by (DCHR) to obtain their testimonies, mentioned above, regarding recent events, have confirmed their fear for mentioning their names for security reasons.

The (DCHR) believes that the kidnapping of journalists and media professionals in Libya, like what happened during the recent demonstrations, is part of a systematic policy followed by the authorities to cover up their continuous violations without accountability and conceal the facts from citizens and the world, by forcibly disappearing journalists. In a recent report issued a few days ago, Libyan Organization for Independent Media documented violations against journalists in various parts of Libya. In addition to enforced disappearance, they are also subjected to the use of old legislation that does not comply with international standards to imprison journalists.

While (DCHR) condemns the systematic violations of media freedom in all parts of Libya, at the same time, it calls on all media outlets, whether Libyan or regional, to be accurate and professional in their media coverage of what is happening in Libya. The (DCHR) is following with great concern the impact of the sharp political polarization, whether between the Libyan parties or the regional parties supporting them, on the coverage of many news websites and stations, which is evident of the total bias of one of the parties to the conflict, as news on its violations are obscured and news on improving its image In front of public opinion are published and vice versa.

(DCHR) denounces the reactions of the international community, which ranged from a brief comment on the widespread violations committed by the authorities during their suppression of the demonstrations, to complete silence from some parties of what happened during the past days of excessive suppression of peaceful protests, which the authorities do not seem to have succeeded in suppressing it completely, while it is seeking to resume dialogue between the two parties to the conflict, who do not have the political will to end the civil war or to protect the rights of the Libyan citizen, as well as the rights of thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers suffering from the horrors in Libya. (DCHR) affirms that the future and stability of Libya requires concerted efforts to push for the respect and protection of human rights, along with pressure to stop the military conflict and achieve political reconciliation.

In light of the foregoing, (DCHR) confirms there is no solution for the legitimacy crisis that all authorities in East and West Libya suffer from, except for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations supervised by the United Nations with imposing a specific timetable for holding elections and working on issuing a permanent constitution for the country and demobilizing non-Libyan fighters, disarming the militias and integrating their members with the security services after passing through rehabilitation program. All of this will not be achieved if there is no political will of the conflict parties to end the conflict and move forward towards reconciliation and peace. Moreover, (DCHR) believes that the Libyan civil society must be included in the preparation for negotiations as a partner, and to benefit from its experiences, vision and recommendations in developing a vision for resolving the conflict, extending peace, developing a transitional justice program and building a new Libya.

(DCHR) underlines that the primary responsibility for ending the conflict rests primarily with the Libyan parties; it does not absolve the international and regional parties of their responsibility. In this context, (DCHR) recalls the recommendations of Berlin Conference held at the beginning of this year, and calls for the resumption of their implementation. (DCHR) is following with great concern the abandonment of some countries participating in Berlin Conference on their pledges not to arming the conflict parties and contributing to achieving peace, Instated of that, some countries have  already sent its armed forces to Libya, while some announced publicly it would send its forces to fight in Libya, investigative media reports published by international media organizations indicate involvement of countries participating in the Berlin Conference in arming one of the conflict parties from behind the scenes. In her briefing to the Security Council on September 2, the Acting Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Mrs. Stephanie Williams, indicated that dozens of supply flights have been monitored to supply the two parties of the conflict with weapons, which she considered “a disturbing violation of Libya’s sovereignty, and a flagrant violation of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations,” Not to mention the commitments made by the Berlin conference participants.

(DCHR) renews its reminder of the demands it made a few days ago with the Libyan Platform organizations to the (PC) and the House of Representatives, and stresses the need for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Special Procedures, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the European Union to urgently pressure all Libyan authorities to release all those arbitrarily detained and to clarify the fate of the forcibly disappeared. (DCHR) also stresses the importance of the investigations to be conducted by the fact-finding committee, which was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council during the 43rd session, to include all violations committed by the Libyan authorities during their suppression of the demonstrations last August and its aftermath. Aware of the weight of the responsibility entrusted to the commission, given the limited deadline granted to it to fulfill its mission of examining the violations that Libya has witnessed since 2016; the (DCHR) repeats its call on the member states of the Human Rights Council to work to renew the mandate of the Commission and to provide all the material and technical support necessary for it.

The Libyan citizens who endured long decades of tyranny and suppression of human rights, before they revolted on 17 February 2011 seeking freedom, justice and democracy, never expected that after all those years, Libya would suffer from political division with local and regional military conflict, nor its human rights record would carry this heavy burden Of violations and grievances, instead of the state that they imagined they were able to build upon the collapse of the previous regime. (DCHR) has no doubt that there is still an opportunity to address the situation in Libya and fulfill hopes of Libyans; On the condition that all parties bear their responsibilities to achieve peace, protect human rights, accountability and end impunity, before it is too late.