Libya: Terrorization of civil society on moral and religious grounds highlights impunity of radical armed groups

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) calls on Libya’s Presidential Council and the Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU) to immediately stop vilifying and inciting violence towards peaceful activists and human rights defenders, and release those arbitrarily detained. CIHRS is appalled by the use of religious and other moral discourse by Libyan authorities to arbitrarily detain, terrorize and malign Libyan civil society and individuals peacefully exercising their freedom of expression.

Libyan authorities’ use of unjustified grounds, such as vague “morality” claims, to defame and terrorize peaceful activists, curtail human rights work and repress basic freedoms contravenes Article 14 of the 2011 Constitutional Declaration as well as international law, notably Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[1]. CIHRS reiterates the urgent need for the international community to prioritize addressing the impunity gap and the lack of comprehensive security sector reform in Libya which directly contribute to such attacks against civil society, not on the sidelines but at the center of any political and peace process.

Between November 2021 and March 2022, Libyan Internal Security Services (ISS), affiliated with the Presidential Council of the GNU,  arrested at least seven young men – activists, human rights defenders and individuals who have recently been active online to discuss human rights concerns, including gender equality, freedom of belief, cultural rights and the rights of internally displaced people, migrants and refugee rights.

Following their detention, ISS then published disturbing video “confessions”, in which the young men confess to being “atheist”, “secular”, “feminist”, or to having collaborated with international organisations to spread “immoral” values within Libyan society. The content and setting of these videos indicate that they have most likely been obtained under duress. Some of individuals are believed to be detained in prison facilities controlled by radical armed groups without any judicial control, such as the Mitiga detention facility run by the Radaa Special Deterrence Force and led by Abdel Raouf Kara, a supporter of Madkhali-Salafism, where incidents of torture, ill-treatment, unlawful killings and other human rights violations are widespread.

The videos have sparked hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence against these individuals and Libyan civil society at large, notably human rights defenders promoting gender equality and individual freedoms. Individuals specifically named in the videos have faced threats of prosecution, smear campaigns, intimidation, and incitement of violence against them. Such defamatory online campaigns can have real harmful consequences on the social and professional lives of the people involved, such as discriminatory treatment or ostracisation, and can put them at risk of violence from the general public.


These recent attacks against freedom of speech and civil society work are taking place against the backdrop of a continued rollback of civic space. The Tripoli Civil Society Commission has led an online vilification and defamation campaign against Libyan civil society labelling its members as foreign or morally corrupt agents perverting Libyan society. On 13 March 2022, the Tanweer movement, a prominent Libyan human rights and cultural organization founded in 2012, announced it was closing down due to the criminalisation of free speech and debate. Repeated violations against journalists, bloggers and individuals expressing their opinions online has further undermined freedom of expression. Between September and December 2021, at least 16 bloggers, journalists and media professionals were either arbitrarily arrested or disappeared. On 6 March 2022, a blogger and former member of the Internal Security Services, Al-Tayeb Al-Shariri, was shot dead in Misrata by members of the Misrata Joint Operations forces after speaking out online about being detained (then released) by these forces.

Furthermore, the lack of any genuine progress on security sector reform and continued political and financial support has further legitimized armed groups in their security and law enforcement roles, notably radical armed groups subscribing to a Madkhali-Salafist ideology such as the Radaa Special Deterrence Forces, resulting in widespread human rights violations. Repeated verbal and physical attacks, especially against religious and gender minorities, artists or journalists, have been reported from armed groups supporting Madkhali-Salafism.

The 2021 budget proposal of the GNU[2] included direct financial support to militias which are known to be perpetrators of grave human rights violations[3]. The GNU has since allocated large sums of money to some of these groups through executive decisions[4]. Prior to this, in January 2021, the Presidential Council of the former Government of National Accord (GNA) appointed Abdel Ghani al-Kikli (“Ghnewa”) as head of a new “Stability Support Agency” in Tripoli with vague and widespread law enforcement powers, reporting directly to the Presidential Council. Ghnewa is a powerful Tripoli militia leader from the Abu Salim Central Security Force, responsible for war crimes and multiple other serious violations. Also in January 2021, the GNA appointed militia leaders such as Emad Trabelsi, commander of the Special Task Force militia, and Lotfi al-Hariri, field commander of the Abu Salim Central Security Force of Abdel Ghani al-Kikli, respectively to head of the intelligence services and the Internal Security Services (ISS). The ISS themselves, composed of former Gaddafi-era security officers, have directly collaborated with the Radaa Special Deterrence Forces in their mandate.

Aside from confidence-building measures, little progress has been achieved so far by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) regarding security sector reform, even though the October 2020 ceasefire agreement included a provision on the identification and categorisation of all national armed groups to allow for their eventual dismantlement and vetted individuals reintegration. In addition to the lack of transparency about the JMC’s work, the body is also incapacitated by political fragmentation and lack of political support.

[1] The United Nations Human Rights Committee explained in General Comment n°34 (CCPR/C/GC/34) that the ICCPR may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy for democratic tenets or human rights, or to punish commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.
[2] Never adopted by the House of Representatives.
[3] Including a network of eastern-based militias (the Internal Security Agency), the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) itself, as well as western-based militias nominally under the control of the GNU (Radaa Special Deterrence Forces, Stability Support Agency, Public Security Agency)
[4] 132 million dinars were allocated to the Stability Support Agency on 28 February 2022 through Executive Decision n°185, while 100 million dinars were allocated to the Tripoli-based Joint Operations Room through Executive Decision n°125 of 10 February 2022.

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