Freedom in the World
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Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi continued his campaign for international respectability in 2001. While his drive to improve relations with the United States and Europe yielded mixed results, his vision of a unified African state came closer to fruition in March with the formation of the African Union, intended to replace the Organization for African Unity (OAU). While the new union may be a victory for Qadhafi, it is undoubtedly less popular among Libyans, who suffer rampant corruption, mismanagement, and severe restrictions on their political and civic freedom, and who tend to blame African immigrants for Libya's socioeconomic problems.
After centuries of Ottoman rule, Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912 and occupied by British and French forces during World War II. In accordance with agreements made by Britain and the United Nations, Libya gained independence under the staunchly pro-Western King Idris I in 1951. Qadhafi seized power in 1969 amid growing anti-Western sentiment regarding foreign-controlled oil companies and military bases on Libyan soil.
Qadhafi's open hostility toward the West and his sponsorship of terrorism have earned Libya the status of pariah. Clashes with regional neighbors, including Chad over the Aozou strip and Egypt over their common border, have led to costly military failures. Suspected Libyan involvement in the 1988 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland prompted the UN to impose sanctions, including embargoes on air traffic and the import of arms and oil production equipment, in 1992. The United States has maintained unilateral sanctions against Libya since 1981 because of the latter's sponsorship of terrorism.
With the economy stagnating, unemployment at 30 percent, and internal infrastructure in disrepair, Qadhafi began taking steps in 1999 to end Libya's international isolation. That year, he surrendered two Libyan nationals suspected in the Lockerbie bombing. He also agreed to pay compensation to the families of 170 people killed in the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over Niger. In addition, he accepted responsibility for the 1984 killing of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher by shots fired from the Libyan embassy in London, and expelled the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal organization from Libya. The UN suspended sanctions in 1999, but stopped short of lifting them permanently because Libya has not explicitly renounced terrorism. The United States eased some restrictions to allow American companies to sell food, medicine, and medical equipment to Libya, but maintained its travel ban. Britain restored diplomatic ties with Libya for the first time since 1986; the Libyan embassy in Britain reopened in March 2001. The European Union (EU) lifted sanctions but maintained an arms embargo.
The two Lockerbie suspects went on trial in May 2000 under Scottish law in the Netherlands. One, a Libyan intelligence agent named Abdel Basset Ali Mohammed al-Megrahi, was convicted of murder in January 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The other was acquitted for lack of evidence and freed. Following the trial, the Arab League called for a total lifting of UN sanctions, and all 22 of its members agreed to disregard them. The United States and Britain reiterated their demand that Libyan authorities renounce terrorism, take responsibility for the attack, and pay compensation to the victims' families. Libya has consistently denied government involvement in the attack, and its immediate response to the verdict was bizarrely mixed. No sooner had its assistant foreign minister publicly stated that Libya looked forward to improved relations with the United States than Qadhafi declared that the judges had acted under U.S. influence and might consider suicide, that the United States owes compensation to the "victims" of its foreign policy, and that he had evidence to exonerate al-Megrahi. The evidence never materialized, and observers attributed the contradictory Libyan positions to Qadhafi's desire to maintain a defiant posture for domestic consumption.
Qadhafi's diplomatic offensive continued in 2001 despite the U.S. decision in August to extend unilateral sanctions for five years. In September, Libyan officials sent an appeal to U.S. officials via the Italian foreign minister seeking improved U.S.-Libyan relations. The anti-American posturing appeared again in September, when Qadhafi accused the United States of inventing AIDS for use as a bioweapon. But Qadhafi was also one of the first Arab leaders to condemn the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. He called upon Muslim aid groups to assist Americans, and offered to help capture Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden through law enforcement cooperation and intelligence sharing. In November, Libya placed several intelligence officials under house arrest in connection with the 1989 French airliner bombing. One of the officials, Abdallah Senoussi, is deputy head of Libyan intelligence and Qadhafi's brother-in-law. He was sentenced to life imprisonment two years ago by a French court.
Once a leading advocate of pan-Arab unity, Qadhafi received little Arab support in the wake of Lockerbie and turned instead to promoting a united Africa. Though notorious for his past support for rebel insurgents and apparent attempts to destabilize a number of African countries, Qadhafi has used the numerous conflicts on the continent as an opportunity to step into the role of regional power broker. In 2001 he worked with Egypt on a peace plan for Sudan and mediated disputes between Sudan and Uganda, and Eritrea and Djibouti. He sent troops to Central African Republic in November to support President Ange Felix Patasse in the wake of a failed coup in May. In March, he hosted an OAU summit in Sirte, at which leaders from 40 African countries backed the dissolution of the OAU and the formation of the African Union. Loosely based on the EU model, the African Union would include a pan-African parliament, a central bank, a supreme court, and a single currency. More than two-thirds of Africa's 53 countries have so far ratified the union. Still, the union is largely the product of Qadhafi's enthusiasm, and his promises of generous financial aid to many regional leaders have undoubtedly secured their support.
Despite his improved international stature, Qadhafi has become increasingly isolated at home. Ethnic rivalries among senior junta officials have been reported, while corruption, mismanagement, and unemployment have eroded support for the regime. Disaffected Libyans see little of some $10 billion per year in oil revenue, and have yet to reap the benefits of suspended UN sanctions as potential investors from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East stream in seeking oil contracts. Economists stress the need for deregulation and privatization, and Qadhafi has gradually lifted some state controls on the economy. He has also tried to encourage foreign investment in agriculture and tourism as well as oil. In November, 47 government and bank officials, including the finance minister, were sent to prison for corruption as part of an apparently ongoing investigation that may be aimed at cleaning up Libya's image. However, arbitrary investment laws, restrictions on foreign ownership of property, state domination of the economy, and continuing corruption are likely to hinder growth for years to come.
Libyans cannot change their government democratically. Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi rules by decree, with almost no accountability or transparency. Libya has no formal constitution; a mixture of Islamic belief, nationalism, and socialist theory in Qadhafi's Green Book provides principles and structures of governance, but the document lacks legal status. Libya is officially known as a jamahiriyah, or state of the masses, conceived as a system of direct government through popular organs at all levels of society. In reality, an elaborate structure of revolutionary committees and people's committees serves as a tool of repression. Real power rests with Qadhafi and a small group of close associates that appoints civil and military officials at every level. In 2000, Qadhafi dissolved 14 ministries, or General People's Committees, and transferred their power to municipal councils, leaving five intact. While some praised this apparent decentralization of power, others speculated that the move was a power grab in response to rifts between Qadhafi and several ministers.
The judiciary is not independent. It includes summary courts for petty offenses, courts of first instance for more serious offenses, courts of appeal, and a supreme court. Revolutionary courts were established in 1980 to try political offenses, but were replaced in 1988 by a people's court after reportedly assuming responsibility for up to 90 percent of prosecutions. Political trials are held in secret, with no due process considerations. Arbitrary arrest and torture are commonplace.
In what has been called the biggest political trial in recent memory, 300 Libyans and 31 other African nationals went on trial in January 2001 in connection with four days of clashes between Libyans and African expatriate workers in October 2000, in which at least seven people died. Five African expatriates and two Libyans were sentenced to death in May, while 160 defendants were freed and the rest received prison sentences ranging from one year to life. Some 150 professionals, including engineers, doctors, and academics, went on trial in March 2001 for belonging to or supporting the Libyan Islamic Group, a nonviolent group that is prohibited in Libya. According to Amnesty International, the defendants were arrested in 1998 and their whereabouts unacknowledged by authorities for three years. In August 2001, officials released 107 political prisoners, including one who had served 31 years in connection with an attempted coup in 1970. Hundreds of political prisoners reportedly remain in Libyan prisons. The trial of 16 health professionals accused of infecting nearly 400 Libyan children with HIV continued in 2001. The defendants, who include six Bulgarians and a Palestinian, face the death penalty if convicted. Amnesty International has reported allegations of torture and pretrial irregularities, including denial of access to counsel, in the case. The judge in the case has postponed the verdict until February 2002. The death penalty applies to a number of political offenses and "economic" crimes, including currency speculation and drug- or alcohol-related crimes. Libya actively abducts and kills political dissidents in exile.
Limited public debate occurs within government bodies, but free expression and free media do not exist in Libya. The state owns and controls all media and thus controls reporting of domestic and international issues. Foreign programming is censored, but satellite television is widely available in Tripoli. Members of the international press reported fewer restrictions on their movement and less interference from officials in recent years.
Independent political parties and civic associations are illegal; only associations affiliated with the regime are tolerated. Political activity considered treasonous is punishable by death. Public assembly must support and be approved by the government. Instances of public unrest are rare. In February 2001, riot police beat and fired tear gas at thousands of demonstrators trying to break into the British embassy in Tripoli. Authorities had originally permitted the demonstration, which was held to protest the verdict in the Lockerbie trial. At least 30 people were arrested.
About 98 percent of Libyans are Sunni Muslim. Islamic groups whose beliefs and practices differ from the state-approved teaching of Islam are banned. According to the U.S. State Department, small communities of Christians worship openly. The largely Berber and Tuareg minorities face discrimination, and Qadhafi reportedly manipulates, bribes, and incites fighting among tribes in order to maintain power.
Qadhafi's pan-African policy has led to an influx of African immigrants in recent years. Poor domestic economic conditions have contributed to resentment of these immigrants, who are often blamed for increases in crime, drug use, and the incidence of AIDS. In late September 2000, four days of deadly clashes between Libyans and African nationals erupted as a result of a trivial dispute. Thousands of African immigrants were subsequently moved to military camps, and thousands more were repatriated to Sudan, Ghana, and Nigeria. Security measures were taken, including restrictions on the hiring of foreigners in the private sector. The incident proved an embarrassment to Qadhafi, who blamed "hidden forces" for trying to derail his united-Africa policy.
Women's access to education and employment have improved under the current regime. However, tradition dictates discrimination in family and civil matters. A woman must have her husband's permission to travel abroad.
Independent trade unions and professional associations do not exist. The only federation is the government-controlled National Trade Unions Federation. There is no collective bargaining, and workers have no legal right to strike.