Libya: new UN report documents targeting of human rights defenders

A girl looks out of her house window in Benghazi, Libya. Photo: UNSMIL

Libya, 25 March 2015 – Armed groups across Libya have targeted human rights defenders seeking to shed light on abuses, according to a new United Nations report that outlines a litany of violent attacks and threats against defenders in the country, and in some cases even after they are forced to leave.

The joint report produced by the UN human rights office (OHCHR) and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), documents attacks, including killings, abductions, torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful deprivation of liberty and death threats by phone and on social media since the escalation of fighting in May 2014.

Most recently, prominent civil society activist Entissar al-Hassaeri was shot dead last month in Tripoli, a news release on the report says. Her body and that of her aunt were found in the trunk of her car on 23 February.

In addition, two members of the National Commission for Human Rights-Libya, a non-governmental organization, were abducted on 13 and 14 February in central Tripoli. Both have since been released, but other human rights defenders and members of civil society remain missing or have gone into hiding.

“Given the increasing risks, the killings of prominent human rights defenders and repeated threats, many have fled the country, fallen silent, or have been forced to work in secret at great risk to themselves and their loved ones,” states the report.

It goes on to note that those who managed to flee abroad face a plethora of problems linked to their residency status, expiration of passports with no possibility of extension at some local Libyan consulates, loss of income, and other financial difficulties.

“Some human rights defenders who have fled have explained that they continued to receive death threats on their mobile phones and social media pages. In at least two cases… human rights defenders were physically assaulted in Tunisia, apparently by Libyans.”

In one such case, a media professional and women’s rights defender from Benghazi left the country in late 2014 after numerous threats, including a text message threatening abduction of her son. Her car was struck, apparently deliberately, by another vehicle and a factory she owned was set on fire. She has continued to be outspoken – and has continued to be threatened – after moving abroad.

Another journalist and human rights defender received threats, including of sexual violence, on her Facebook page. “We will … come to your house and break your honour,” read one post. After fleeing Libya in August 2014, she continued to receive threats via Viber and text messages.

“Civilians in Libya, including human rights defenders, have few or no avenues to seek protection or access to remedy for the harm suffered,” the report warns. “The breakdown of law and order has led to the failure of the criminal justice system in some parts of Libya, especially Derna, Benghazi and Sirte, while severe disruptions have been reported elsewhere. Justice sector officials…have been violently targeted by armed groups.”

The murders of several prominent individuals in Benghazi last year, including newspaper editor Muftah Abu Zeid, human rights defender Salwa Bughaigis, and two young civil society activists, Tawfik Bensaud and Sami al-Kawafi, remain unsolved.

Armed groups across political, tribal, regional and ideological divides are responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and abuses of human rights, including abductions, extra-judicial executions and other unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, according to the report, which adds that those seeking to document and denounce such violations and abuses have faced reprisals.

The report warns that those committing crimes under international law are criminally liable, including before the International Criminal Court.

Among other measures, the report stresses the crucial need to resume building State institutions, particularly law enforcement agencies and the overall justice system, and for all sides to publicly condemn attacks against civil society members.

Neighbouring countries and the international community should also ensure the protection of Libyan human rights defenders, including by issuing emergency visas and providing temporary shelter, the report urges.