Libya: Activist imprisoned under al-Gaddafi facing jail for televised remarks about politicians

A writer and political commentator who was a prisoner of conscience under Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s rule, has now fallen foul of Libya’s transitional authorities after making statements deemed offensive to prominent political figures during a television appearance, said Amnesty International.Jamal al-Hajji was convicted of defamation on 31 December 2013 and sentenced to eight months in prison and a fine of 400,000 Libyan Dinar [approximately 318,650 USD].During an interview in February 2013 on al-Wataniya, a local Libyan television channel, he accused the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Abulaziz and five other politicians and public figures of conspiring against Libya and the “17 February Revolution”. Four of them lodged a complaint against Jamal al-Hajji. His appeal hearing is scheduled for Thursday 23 January. “No one should be sent to prison for expressing their views. Free expression is one of the rights Libyans took to the streets to reclaim during the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Gaddafi,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. “This case is the result of a failure of the transitional authority to repeal laws that stifle free expression and are contrary to international law. His conviction should be overturned, doing so would prove that the authorities have truly made a clean break from the repressive tactics of the past.” Jamal al-Hajji was convicted of defamation under Article 439 of the Libyan Penal Code which carries a punishment of up to two years in prison as well as a fine.Several other articles of the Libyan Penal Code prescribe prison terms for activities which merely amount to the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association, such as Articles 178, 195, 206 and 207.Sentences are particularly harsh in cases involving criticism of public officials or state institutions, and some carry the death penalty. Amnesty International believes that defamation should not be a criminal offence. No one should be sent to prison merely for voicing his or her opinion however objectionable it may seem. In addition, politicians and public figures should be prepared to tolerate more criticism and scrutiny than private individuals. “Using defamation laws to silence criticism or public debate is a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of expression. Defamation, libel and other expression-related offences should be removed from the Libyan Penal Code,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.“Those who believe they have been defamed should have civil – not criminal – means of pursuing their claims.”Amnesty International also fears that Jamal al-Hajji may have been denied a fair trial. The defence has claimed that they were denied the right to cross-examine witnesses. The court also failed to notify Jamal al-Hajji of changes to the date of his latest hearing, violating his right to be present at his trial. A verdict was issued in his absence. Jamal al-Hajji was arrested a number of times during Muammar al-Gaddafi’s rule.  In 2007, he was arrested for organizing a peaceful protest. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International after he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 2008 after an unfair trial. He was released in March 2009 but then arrested again later that year on charges of insulting the judicial authorities. He was also arrested again in 2011 after calling for peaceful protests.