Libya is not an electoral democracy. Power theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees and the indirectly elected General People’s Congress, but in practice those structures are manipulated to ensure the continued dominance of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, who holds no official title. It is illegal for any political group to oppose the principles of the 1969 revolution, which are laid out in the Green Book, although market-based economic changes in recent years have diverged from the regime’s socialist ideals.
Political parties are illegal, and the government strictly monitors political activity. Organizing or joining anything akin to a political party is punishable by long prison terms and even the death penalty. Many Libyan opposition movements and figures operate outside the country.
Corruption is pervasive in both the private sector and the government in Libya, which was ranked 146 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
There is no independent press. State-owned media largely operate as mouthpieces for the authorities, and journalists work in a climate of fear and self-censorship. Those who displease the regime face harassment or imprisonment on trumped-up charges. In 2010, the government created the new position of press deputy, tasked with monitoring journalists who report on corruption.Four investigative journalists were arrested in January after they uncovered graft in the eastern city of Benghazi. The government also continued to target the Al-Ghad media group, which had run the country’s only quasi-independent newspapers, radio stations, and satellite television station until it was nationalized in 2009. Two newspapers in the Al-Ghad group, Quryna and Oea, said that they were forced to suspend publication from January to July 2010 after publishing articles critical of the government. In an apparent power struggle between the media group and conservative elements in the ruling elite, a group of 20 Al-Ghad journalists were arrested in November, and the head of Al-Ghad resigned shortly thereafter, publicly citing his inability to protect journalists in Libya’s hostile media environment.
The government controls the country’s only internet service provider. Independent news websites were sporadically blocked during 2010, as was the international video-sharing site YouTube after users posted what they claimed were clips of demonstrations within Libya. Opposition websites based outside of Libya were also routinely hacked.
Nearly all Libyans are Muslim. The government closely monitors mosques for Islamist activity, and there have been unconfirmed reports of Islamist militant groups allied to Al-Qaeda operating against the government. In 2007, Al-Qaeda declared that the so-called Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had joined its international network. The few non-Muslims in Libya are permitted to practice their faiths with relative freedom. Academic freedom is tightly restricted.
The government does not uphold freedom of assembly. Those demonstrations that are allowed to take place are typically meant to support the aims of the regime. According to Amnesty International, prisoners’ relatives who gather weekly in the city of Benghazi are subject to harassment, intimidation, and arrest.
The law allows for the establishment of nongovernmental organizations, but those that have been granted authorization to operate are directly or indirectly linked to the government. There are no independent labor unions.
The People’s Court, infamous for punishing political dissidents, was abolished in 2005, but the judicial authority has since created the State Security Court, which carries out a similar function. The judiciary as a whole remains subservient to the political leadership and regularly penalizes political dissent.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2009 that 500 political prisoners remained in custody despite having been acquitted of all charges or served their full prison sentences. Incommunicado detention and disappearances of political dissidents are common in Libya, and the fate of thousands of prisoners taken into custody over the last 30 years remains unknown. These include up to 1,200 prisoners who were massacred at Abu Salim prison in 1996, when guards violently crushed an inmate revolt. In 2008, the government began to issue death certificates for prisoners thought to have died in the revolt, but it did not indicate the cause of death in those cases. The government has not released any other information about the Abu Salim incident, despite having called for an official investigation in 2008. No one has been prosecuted for the massacre.
A large number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa work in Libya or pass through in attempts to reach Europe. Human rights organizations have documented and criticized the country’s treatment of these migrants, including forced repatriation of detainees to countries where they are at high risk of torture and mistreatment by their home governments. Following a 2009 agreement between Libya and Italy on joint naval operations to stop illegal migration, there have been reports of Libyan authorities firing live ammunition at boats they believe to be carrying illegal migrants. In June 2010, the Libyan government expelled the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from the country without explanation or an official statement.
Women enjoy many of the same legal protections as men, but certain laws and social norms perpetuate discrimination, particularly in areas such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In January 2010, the Libyan government passed Law No. 24 of 2010, which nominally gave Libyan women the right to pass their nationality to their children. However, a key clause defines a Libyan as a person born either to a Libyan father or to a Libyan mother and a father who is stateless or of unknown nationality, which seems to rule out Libyan citizenship if the father has a known foreign nationality. Moreover, the law lacks implementation regulations, leaving it unclear as to whether and how the new rights will be applied in practice. Women who have been cast out by their families are particularly vulnerable in Libya. The government considers such women wayward and can hold them indefinitely in “social rehabilitation” facilities, which are de facto prisons.