Beirut A Libyan criminal court’s imposition of a five-year prison term on Al-Ummah newspaper editor Amara al-Khatabi for allegedly defaming public officials is a serious blow to free speech that should not be allowed to stand.
The court convicted al-Khatabi for an article published in the November 21, 2012 edition of Al-Ummah. The article, “The Black List of the Judiciary,” named 87 judges and prosecutors, all members of the public judiciary, whom it accused of accepting bribes and other illicit earnings, and of loyalty to the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Al-Ummah said it had received the list from an unnamed source.
“Sending anyone, especially a newspaper editor, to prison for alleged defamation violates freedom of expression and can only have a chilling effect on the media,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “At a time when the rule of law in Libya is under huge threat from the actions of unaccountable armed groups, it is striking that prosecutors should give priority to a case like this.”
Prosecutors should not have charged al-Khatabi with criminal defamation to start with, Human Rights Watch said. Libyan authorities should withdraw this charge and abolish the laws that criminalize defamation, and which allow courts to ban persons from practicing journalism.
In a call with Human Rights Watch on November 20, 2014, al-Khatabi said he had been shocked when he received a court report on November 17 to learn that he had been convicted and sentenced on August 17. He said his lawyer would seek a re-trial as the court had reached its verdict in the absence of the defendant and his legal team.
The trial judge also ordered al-Khatabi to pay heavy damages to each of the five plaintiffs who brought the case; ordered the withdrawal of his civil rights during his imprisonment and for a year after his release; and banned him from practicing journalism for the duration of his prison sentence. The latter sentence would appear to create a system where state authorities decide who can and cannot be a journalist, which violates freedom of expression standards, Human Rights Watch said.
Since May, violent clashes between rival armed groups have intensified and developed into armed conflicts across Libya. Armed groups have committed what amount to war crimes by attacking civilians and civilian property. Unidentified assailants have killed at least 250 people in 2014 alone in what may amount to crimes against humanity. Libyan authorities have been unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute these crimes.
Authorities arrested al-Khatabi on December 19, 2012, following which he spent close to six months in pretrial detention. On January 1, 2013, the fifth district criminal court charged him with “defaming” members of the judiciary.
His sentencing took place on August 17 but neither he nor his lawyer attended it because his lawyer, who had been at the courts complex that day, told him that the court would not convene due to the armed clashes then taking place in Tripoli. Al-Khatabi told Human Rights Watch that he learned that the trial had taken place and of his sentence only when he received a copy of the court report delivered to his home on November 17 informing him of the verdict.
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Libya: Editor's Harsh Conviction Blow to Free Speech