Despite Progress, Libya Has Long Way to Go on Rights

International and local human rights organizations have applauded Libya in recent days for some tentative steps towards greater recognition of human rights, but are calling on authorities to increase the pace of reform.

Human Rights Watch released a report, “Libya: Truth and Justice Can’t Wait,” on Dec. 12, which noted that availability of the Internet and two new newspapers have increased journalists’ ability to report on some previously sensitive subjects. Nevertheless, criminal penalties brought against members of the press continue to stifle most press freedoms. HRW applauded Justice Ministry efforts to secure the release of unjustly detained Libyans and to reform the penal code, but warned that the country’s powerful Internal Security Agency (ISA) continues to oppose the efforts.

The ISA continues to operate with impunity, HRW charges, imprisoning Libyans at will and maintaining control over two prisons. Around 500 people who have completed their sentences or have been acquitted by the courts remain in detention on ISA orders.

“A public assessment of Libya’s human rights record in Tripoli would have been unthinkable a few years ago and reflects the expanded space for public discussion in Libya . . . [But] the government should revise its penal code to allow all Libyans the freedom to have such public discussion without fear of criminal sanction, and stop jailing those who express criticism of the government,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director said in a press release.

The Libyan Human Rights Society issued its annual report on the same day as HRW, also calling on authorities to release political prisoners. HRS recommended a new law to remove restrictions on the formation of independent media outlets. The group was formed in 1999 by Said al-Islam Gaddafi, the reform-minded son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The younger Gaddafi was also the impetus behind the country’s two new newspapers.

Libya has long been a target for criticism from human rights groups for its lack of respect for individual freedoms. In 2003, Gaddafi stunned the world when he decided to abandon decades of antagonistic posturing, end efforts to stockpile weapons of mass destruction and compensate victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The move allowed for a slight warming of relations between Libya and Western countries, and has increased scrutiny of the country’s rights performance.