Libya: Politicians face death penalty over blasphemous cartoon

Two politicians could be sentenced to death over a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam when a verdict is issued in their case on Sunday 2 March, said Amnesty International. The organization is calling for the charges against them to be dropped immediately.

The cartoon, which depicts a group of men discussing the role of women in society, appeared on a Libyan National Party electoral campaign poster in the main streets of Libyan cities ahead of parliamentary elections in 2012.

“It is shocking that two political figures may face a firing squad over a cartoon that was published on an electoral campaign poster. No one should be prosecuted for freely expressing his or her views in public – however offensive they may seem to others,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Libyans must be free to speak their minds, regardless of whether those views are expressed verbally, or appear on a poster, in a poem or a newspaper article. It is ludicrous that doing so could be considered a crime punishable by death.”

The cartoon caused an uproar because, unintentionally, it featured the same character used to depict the Prophet Mohammed in anti-Islamic comic published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. However, the Libyan poster made no reference to Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.

Ali Tekbali and Fathi Sager, both members of the Libyan National Party, were charged nearly a year ago with a string of offences including “promoting and possessing satirical drawings offensive to Islam and the Prophet” and “instigating discord” between Libyans over the publication of the cartoon. The offices of the Libyan National Party, a moderate political party, were raided in November 2012 by a state-affiliated militia and have been closed since then by order of the prosecution.

“The charges against them are absurd. The poster makes no reference to religion. The fact that this case was not dismissed from the outset sends a chilling message that freedom of expression in Libya is under serious threat,” said Said Boumedouha.

Fathi Sagher told Amnesty International last week that he was hoping for the best and putting his faith in the fact that “some judges in the Libyan courts are fair and courageous enough to do the right thing.”

Ali Tekbali told Amnesty International that he had hoped the poster would challenge stereotypes of women held by some groups in Libya.

Libyans are currently in the process of shaping the future of post-al-Gaddafi Libya. Elections for an assembly to draft a new constitution took place last week amidst reports of violence and protests in some areas. A re-run of elections in polling stations, where violence prevented voting was held yesterday.

“Libya is at a critical juncture. Once elected, the constitutional assembly will have a responsibility to safeguard freedom of expression and enshrine women’s rights and other human rights principles in the new constitution to prevent future attempts to curtail freedoms,” said Said Boumedouha.

“In a climate of such change, open debate and different opinions should be encouraged, not hushed up and swept beneath the carpet.” 

In recent months the Libyan authorities have increased curbs on freedom of expression across the country with a series of measures introduced to clamp down on free speech. Three weeks ago an al-Gaddafi era law banning insults to the state was revived and amended to protect the“17 February Revolution”. Earlier a ban on satellite stations broadcasting views perceived as hostile to the “17 February Revolution” was also introduced.

“Libya’s laws need to be drastically reviewed and brought in line with international standards on human rights. Any clauses that prescribe the death penalty and criminalize free expression must be expunged immediately,” said Said Boumedouha.

In another case illustrating the repressive crackdown on freedom of expression, Amara al-Khattabi, editor of al-Umma Newspaper, is facing up to 15 years in prison for publishing a list of 84 judges whom he alleges were corrupt. His trial is expected to resume on 2 March. Amnesty International is calling for all charges against him to be dropped.

Problematic articles within Libya’s Penal Code

Fathi Sager and Ali Tekbali are prosecuted on charges under Articles 203, 207 and 291 of the Penal Code all of which place undue restrictions on freedom of expression and contravene Libya’s international human rights obligations and the Constitutional declaration adopted on 3 August 2011 which guarantees freedom of expression.

Article 203 of the Penal Code provides the death penalty for any act “aiming at initiating a civil war in the country, or fragmenting national unity, or seeking to cause discord” between Libyans.

Article 207 prescribes the death penalty for 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”.

Article 291 criminalizes blasphemy and prescribes a two-year prison term for insults to Islam, “the Divine being”, the Prophet and other prophets.

The two politicians were also wrongly charged under Article 318 of the Penal Code, which prescribes a one-year prison term and a fine for anyone who “publicly instigates hate or contempt” for a  religious community in a manner that disturbs public security.

Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression are allowed only on specific grounds, such as protecting national security, public order, or the rights of others. Such restrictions may only be imposed if absolutely necessary. Amnesty International believes that imprisonment would always be a disproportionate measure.