With inquisition-like tactics, Libya is jailing progressive youths on charges of 'atheism'

8 min read
29 March, 2022
In-depth: Progressive activists in Libya have been detained by security forces on accusations of promoting atheism and forced to sign 'confessions', triggering fears of a return to Gaddafi's repressive era.

The authorities in post-Gaddafi Libya often make a lot of promises about a new era for democracy and freedom. Instead, human rights groups and activists are warning the country is steadily returning to 'total tyranny' with a sustained security crackdown on independent journalism, and now, even expressions of secular thinking.

The New Arab has learned that seven activists - aged between 19 and 29 - have been detained in Tripoli as Libyan security forces and authorities use accusations of atheism to jail journalists and muzzle civil society.

Five of the detainees have been accused by Libya's public prosecution of belonging to the Tanweer Movement, a civil society group best-known for organising book fairs and calling for liberal social reforms.

The charges against the accused of 'promoting atheism' and 'abandoning religion' have alarmed human rights groups who believe that Tripoli authorities are working with the security forces to crush dissent in Libya - Libya warlord Khalifa Haftar and the rival eastern authority have faced similar accusations.

"It is a shameful display, the public prosecution should be investigating the internal security agency for their crimes, not to mention the rampant crimes and abuses committed by militias and armed groups across Libya," Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International's Libya researcher told The New Arab.

Security forces

At least one of the activists was detained for alleged 'blasphemous' conversations on social media app Clubhouse, while another was snatched as he attempted to fly out of Libya.

Border guards at Tripoli Airport, where the incident took place, have been linked to the Internal Security Agency (ISA) headed by former militia commander Lofti al-Harari.

The agency has been accused of a harrowing campaign of repression against activists, often on spurious charges of 'promoting atheism' or 'insulting Islam', which could potentially carry the death penalty.

Libya's political authorities appear unwilling to rein in the security forces, which is largely made up of members of Harari's previous armed group. Critics say these men lack the training or background to work in a credible security service.

Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the prime minister of Libya's provisional government and one of two rival prime ministers currently claiming the post, on Friday publicly condemned atheism and urged the country to do more to stamp it out in an apparent show of support for the detentions.

"After Harari took over the security agency you began to see more abuses committed against activists and videotaped confessions. The Internal Security Apparatus now de-facto operates under Harari, which is nominally under the supervision of the prime minister," said Amnesty's Baoumi.

"We see the ISA using religion and Libyan 'morals' to silence any criticism or free expression in the country. We are very concerned about the effect this is having on others, both inside and outside Libya, who want to exercise the right to freedom of expression." 

In a statement posted on social media and later taken down, the ISA denied claims raised by Amnesty International about the mistreatment of the accused. The New Arab has approached the Libyan embassy for comment but was unable to get a response.

"Chillingly, some of the detained activists have been dragged in front of cameras and forced to 'confess' to 'promoting atheism, blasphemy, and feminist ideas'"

Filmed confessions

Chillingly, some of the detained activists have been dragged in front of cameras and forced to 'confess' to 'promoting atheism, blasphemy, and feminist ideas'.

The videos were posted on ISA-affiliated social media pages, a tactic regularly employed by the agency against alleged atheists, along with common criminals.

Muammar Gaddafi's thuggish security forces had regularly broadcast 'confessions' from activists during the 2011 revolution about being in the pay of foreign agencies or other deviancies. Such claims were widely rejected by human rights groups, who saw the confessions as extracted under torture.  

Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the recent public humiliations and arbitrary detentions have largely muzzled activism and independent journalism in all parts of Libya. 

"It is very hard to believe that anyone would go in front of a camera and out themselves in this way. My assumption is that the vast majority, if not all of them, are under duress," Salah said. 

"This is a very problematic tactic because there are obviously no due process rights when doing this and I think it is very worrying that the Libyan government is not trying to end this completely." 

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The silence of the Libyan government on these cases has been a concern for human rights groups who say it allows Tripoli to distance itself from the ISA's repressive methods and absolve itself of responsibility for the men's fate. 

It also highlights the huge power armed groups - some now part of security agencies - wield in the east and west of the country.  

"There is an interdependency between these armed groups and the authorities, who rely on armed groups for their survival," said Salah. 

"There's a very violent landscape across Libya with armed groups that have different agendas and ideologies taking over areas that the state used to provide. They're the ones who provide - quote, unquote - law and order and run the security agencies." 

"Both the eastern and western authorities are guilty of retaining or enacting draconian legislation - some legacies of the Gaddafi era - that can and have been used to target perceived opponents"

Draconian laws

Both the eastern and western authorities are guilty of retaining or enacting draconian legislation - some legacies of the Gaddafi era - that can and have been used to target perceived opponents.  

The former Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli introduced a law in 2019 widely perceived as restricting civil society's ability to operate and hindering access to international NGOs and donors. 

"If civil society groups were to 100 percent comply with the law, then they would basically not be able to speak at a webinar organised by an international organisation without getting preapproval from authorities," said Salah. 

"Any form of activism - really grassroots and basic issues that are far away from any talk of secularism - could already make you a target if you oppose what these armed groups stand for. I think it's very worrying that journalists and activists are being arrested on loose allegations invoking insult to religion." 

The OHCHR has also voiced concern about the detention of the seven men and said that the allegations of atheism will have a 'chilling effect' on human rights defenders, civil society, and humanitarian workers in Libya. 

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This includes the Tanweer (Enlightenment) Movement. Formed in 2013 amid the optimistic spirit of the Arab Spring, the group has rejected recent claims by Libyan authorities that it operated secretly or promoted atheism.

It also insists that its activities are visible on official social media pages and it has always acted according to Libyan law by registering with the Civil Society Commission and given official approval to operate.  

"The Tanweer Movement knows full well these restrictions and baseless accusations… are nothing more than a fierce war led by political parties," said the movement in a statement. 

"The Libyan government with its security services is trying to create and fabricate any issue… [to] gain popular support in front of their opponents. What is happening is nothing but a political rivalry par excellent."

"Even these modest demands have resulted in harassment and intimidation against its members culminating in the assassination of the group's founder, Intisar al-Hasari, in 2015"

Tanweer Movement

Its activists had attracted some controversy for campaigns for women's and LGBTQ rights and calls for liberal reforms such as abolishing Article 424 of the Libyan law code, which allows charges against rapists to be dropped if the accused marries the victim. 

Even these modest demands have resulted in harassment and intimidation against its members culminating in the assassination of the group's founder, Intisar al-Hasari, in 2015.  

In February 2022, after accusations of supporting 'atheism' and 'infidel feminism', Tanweer closed for a third time due to the threats posed to its members in Tripoli and abroad. The group strongly denies claims of atheism and immorality. 

"Our goal was to encourage critical thinking in society and promote individual freedoms," Ahmed Elbukhari, a former member of the group who now lives in Europe due to the dangers at home, told The New Arab

"We were subject to harassment and threats over the years and our movement was frozen due to the persecution of its members." 

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Elbukhari said former Tanweer activists, both inside Libya and abroad, fear for their safety and their futures.  

"Many activists are now on the run and afraid. I do not think that they will recover because of this prosecution. Freedom in Libya, and Tripoli in particular, has been reduced to almost zero," he said. 

"We feel we have been abandoned, and we ask the international community to stand with us in our battle [for freedom] because it is not only our battle but one for the whole free world." 

Kacem El Ghazzali, Moroccan-Swiss secular activist and Humanists International’s MENA Advocacy & Casework Consultant, told The New Arab that the detention of the activists is turning the clock back to before the Arab Spring when there was virtually no room for criticism of authorities in Libya. 

"The recent arrest campaign in Libya represents an attack on the very last space of freedom, and thereby the country's ascent into an atmosphere of total tyranny," El Ghazzali added. 

"Libyan authorities should address the security and economic problems afflicting the country, rather than using peaceful young secular and feminist activists as scapegoats to cover up political failures."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a statement to the UNHCR. The source of the statement was another UN agency, the OHCHR. The New Arab regrets the error.