Libya | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Libyan leader Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi continued his campaign for regional and international respectability in 2002. His attempts to position himself as a pan-African leader built upon recent efforts to break Libya out of international isolation, further burnishing his image as a continental gadfly. Libya seemed to cooperate with the United States on the war against terrorism, nevertheless, the United States classified it as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. Libya offered a compensation package to the families of the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, but conditioned this offer on the complete removal of international sanctions against the country. At year's end, Libya was slated to chair the UN Commission on Human Rights.

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 toward 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 international 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 Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, prompted the United Nations in 1992 to impose sanctions, including embargoes on air traffic and the import of arms and oil-production equipment. The United States has maintained unilateral sanctions against Libya since 1981 because of the latter's sponsorship of terrorism.

With the economy stagnating and the internal infrastructure in disrepair, Qadhafi began taking steps in 1999 to end Libya's international isolation. 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 from Libya the Palestinian terrorist organization headed by Abu Nidal. The United Nations 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 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; 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 governmental involvement in the attack.

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. In 2001 he worked with Egypt on a peace plan for Sudan and mediated disputes between Sudan and Uganda, and between Eritrea and Djibouti. He also sent troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) to support President Ange Felix Patasse in the wake of a failed coup.

While working to improve his image abroad, 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 stressed 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 2001, as part of an ongoing investigation apparently aimed at cleaning up Libya's image, 47 government and bank officials, including the finance minister, were sent to prison for corruption.

Early in 2002, Libyan officials held talks with American counterparts in London over removing Libya from the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. While a State Department report published in the spring did indicate that Libya was taking steps "to get out of the terrorism business," Libya was not removed from the official list. Whatever progress Libya has made in this area--including its relative cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism--was offset later in the year when the United States accused Libya of proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

Expanding its image-rehabilitation drive, the government in May offered a $2.7 billion compensation package to the families of the 270 victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing. However, Libya tied dispensation of the money to a removal of all outstanding sanctions against it and its removal from the U.S. State Department's terrorism-sponsors list.

In October Qadhafi sent troops to protect President Patasse's palace while Libyan jets bombed rebel-held areas of Bangui, the CAR's capital. Analysts speculated Qadhafi's military support was either part of his recent efforts at positioning himself as an African power broker or an attempt to leverage his access to the CAR's mineral resources.

Qadhafi's vision of a unified African state came into clearer focus in July with the formation of the African Union (AU), and Libya's inclusion on the steering committee of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Libya's inclusion in an economic recovery plan predicated on transparent governance and respect for human rights generated much controversy abroad; most Libyans suffer from rampant corruption, mismanagement, and from severe restrictions on their political and civic freedoms. 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.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 who appoint 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 people's courts after reportedly assuming responsibility for up to 90 percent of prosecutions. Political trials are held in secret, with no due process considerations. According to the U.S. State Department, Libya employs summary judicial techniques to suppress local opposition. Arbitrary arrest and torture are commonplace.

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. The public practice of law is illegal.

In August, the government released from jail several prisoners of conscience affiliated with the banned Islamic Liberation Party. 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 other political prisoners reportedly remain in prison. Some have been in jail for more than ten years without charge or trial. The government does not allow prison visits by human rights monitors.

Earlier in the year, Libya was nominated by the Africa group at the United Nations to chair the UN Commission on Human Rights. The nomination elicited outcry by rights groups, who appealed to the African Union to select a more suitable candidate. After its nomination as chair for the UN Commission on Human Rights, Libya indicated it would invite UN and other human rights monitors to visit Libya. It also declared its intention to review the role of the peoples' courts.

In February, a Libyan court ruled there was no evidence to indicate that seven foreign medical workers were deliberately infecting children with AIDS; Qadhafi had previously accused one Palestinian and six Bulgarian health workers of carrying out a conspiracy to undermine Libya's national security. The matter was referred to a criminal court.

Free media do not exist in Libya. Publication of opinions contrary to government policy is forbidden. The state owns and controls all media and thus controls reporting of domestic and international issues. Satellite television is widely available; access to Western news channels such as CNN is available, but foreign programming is sometimes censored. International publications are censored and sometimes prohibited. Internet access is available via one service provider, which is owned by Col. Qadhafi's son.

Academic freedom is severely restricted. Elementary, middle, and high schools are subject to intensive political indoctrination. In December, the revolutionary committee of the department of politics and economics at Garyounis University in Benghazi reportedly "purified" the department of so-called subversive elements.

Limited public debate occurs within government bodies, but free expression and the right to privacy are not respected. An extensive and pervasive security apparatus exists, including local "Revolutionary Committees" and "Purification Committees" who monitor individual activities and communications.

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.

About 97 percent of Libyans are Sunni Muslim. Islamic groups whose beliefs and practices differ from the state-approved teaching of Islam are banned. The government controls most mosques and Islamic institutions. 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 other 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.

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.

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.