LFJL applauds court ruling on blasphemy case and urges the state to repeal oppressive legislation

March 5, 2014

Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) applauds the decision of the Libyan judiciary on 2 March 2014 to acquit Mr. Ali Tekbali and Mr. Fathi Sagar for offences relating to the publication of a satirical cartoon. The use of law to criminalise freedom of expression remains a huge concern and undermines Libya’s commitment to the fundamental human rights.

The offices of the Libyan National Party were raided in November 2012 by a state-affiliated militia and were ordered to be closed in the interim by the prosecution. The case involved charges brought by state authorities, which alleged that the Libyan National Party’s 2012 election campaign posters featured content  that could be considered blasphemous. The charges invoked by the prosecutor include the Libyan Penal Code Article 203, which criminalises aiming to initiate a civil war in the country, or fragmenting national unity, or seeking to cause discord. The defendants were also charged with Article 207 which prohibits promoting theories or principles with a view of changing the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental structures of the social system or overthrowing the state’s political, social and economic systems. Both Article 203 and 207 may be punishable by the death penalty. Additional charges brought include article 291 for blasphemy and article 318 for inciting hatred or contempt that may lead to public disorder.

The penal code articles used by the prosecutor in this case are not only in direct conflict with Libya’s democratic aspirations, but also Libya’s existing legislative commitments. Article 14 of the Interim Constitutional Declaration expressly guarantees that “the state shall ensure freedom of opinion, freedom of speech for individuals and groups, freedom of communication, freedom of press, media, printing, and distribution”. Libya has also ratified numerous bodies of international law that protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression, including the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the African charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The 15 months it has taken for this case to conclude also mark an unacceptably drawn out process. Throughout this period the legal rights of the defendants and the Libyan National Party were limited. The willingness of the prosecution to file charges, which inappropriately interfered with both individual and political party conduct, without clear evidence, raises concerns.

LFJL Director Elham Saudi commented, “The court’s ruling upholds the right to freedom of expression and sends a welcome message that Libya is moving forward towards greater respect for human rights. It is also recognition that the case brought by the prosecution was fundamentally out of step with Libya’s contemporary values.”

 LFJL urges the Libyan legislature to amend the penal code and repeal draconian measures that undermine human rights. The Libyan state must ensure that the law is in harmony with its national and international human rights commitments in order to avoid future threats to such fundamental freedoms.  LFJL further emphasises the need to repeal Law 5 of 2014, as highlighted in a recent statement. Law 5 criminalises any action which may harm or prejudice the February 17 Revolution, as well as insulting remarks directed at the executive, judiciary, and the legislator or any of their members. Unchecked, LFJL is very concerned that such restrictions to freedom of expression will have a detrimental effect on political freedom, government accountability and result in the further curtailment of other human rights.

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