People ride a horse-drawn carriage next to a billboard marking the Amazigh new year at Martyrs square in Libya's capital Tripoli on January 14, 2024.

Libya: Internal Security Agency must end abuses in name of ‘guarding virtue’

Over the past year, the Tripoli-based Internal Security Agency (ISA) has subjected dozens of men, women and children to a range of abuses, including enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture, with some facing the death penalty, under the guise of “guarding virtue,” said Amnesty International today.

Amnesty International has gathered evidence of an intensified crackdown on freedom of thought, expression and belief by ISA against the backdrop of a May 2023 decree issued by an official religious body, the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs (known as Awqaf), to combat what it called “religious, intellectual and moral deviations.” ISA’s vicious campaign, praised publicly by senior Awqaf officials, has targeted mainly Libyan youths, especially from the Amazigh community, as well as foreign nationals under the pretext of “safeguarding virtue and purifying society,” leading in some cases to investigations on charges punishable by death.

“The Libyan government’s inaction towards ISA’s well-documented crimes under international law, including torture and enforced disappearance, has emboldened them to commit further abuses and has perpetuated a vicious campaign stifling freedom of thought, expression and belief cloaked under ‘guarding virtue,’” said Bassam Al Kantar, Amnesty International’s Libya Researcher.

“The Libyan authorities must ensure the immediate release of all those detained solely for exercising their human rights and cease the persecution of individuals for expressing their beliefs. The Government of National Unity must also remove from positions of power ISA commanders and members reasonably suspected of serious human rights violations, pending independent and impartial criminal investigations and, if sufficient evidence exists, prosecutions.”

Amnesty International interviewed two former detainees, families and lawyers following up on cases of four individuals currently detained and appealing pretrial detention orders by prosecutors, as well as nine Libyan activists based in Libya or in exile; and reviewed 15 “confession” videos published by ISA since March 2023.

ISA’s intensified crackdown has targeted individuals perceived as rejecting the dominant Madkhali-Salafist ideology in Awqaf, which significantly restricts the rights of women and girls, religious minorities and LGBTI people.

Disturbing videos showing forced confessions

Videos published online by the ISA show at least 24 individuals under apparent duress giving “confessions”. At least 19 remain in pretrial detention following orders by the Public Prosecutor’s office in al-Ruwaimi and al-Jdeida prisons in Tripoli. They face charges of “illicit sexual intercourse”, “promoting views or principles that aim to overthrow the political, social, or economic order of the state”, “blasphemy” and “apostasy”. Some of these charges carry life imprisonment and death sentences.

On 28 December 2023, ISA published two videos on its social media channels showing 14 people, including four women and a 17-year-old girl, under apparent duress “confessing” to offences such as “spreading atheism,” “apostasy,” “embracing non-religion,” “adopting liberal ideas,” “wife swapping,” and “homosexuality”. In earlier videos ISA published in April and May 2023, 10 other people are seen “confessing” to “embracing Christianity” and “insulting Islam”. 

Amnesty International’s documentation has confirmed that ISA had arrested those who appeared in the videos between March and October 2023.

“Heard screams of other detainees”

ISA agents arrested the targeted individuals from their homes or the streets without presenting a warrant. In some cases, ISA arrested their relatives to compel the “wanted” individuals to hand themselves in. Since September 2023, ISA also used the phones and chat histories of two other detained activists to arbitrarily arrest at least nine more individuals.

The Libyan government’s inaction towards ISA’s well-documented crimes under international law, including torture and enforced disappearance, has emboldened them to commit further abuses…

Bassam Al Kantar, Amnesty International

ISA interrogators have routinely subjected detainees to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, beatings, electric shocks and suspension in stress positions. Those held were interrogated without a lawyer present.

A foreign national, who asked to remain anonymous, told Amnesty International that he was arrested in Tripoli by armed men in plain clothes, who took him to ISA’s headquarters without disclosing their affiliation or the reason for his arrest. He was kept incommunicado for a week and subjected to numerous interrogations, including by ISA’s head of the Central Security Committee.

He said that ISA investigators forced him to disclose the passwords to his phone and laptop, questioned him for hours and scrutinized his WhatsApp conversations and work-related calls before accusing him of “conspiracy” and “espionage”.

He told Amnesty International that he heard screams of other detainees and saw bloodstains on the floor as he walked from his cell to the bathroom. He was eventually deported.

Another human rights activist, detained for 10 months on charges of “communicating with atheists and feminists and insulting the state religion,” said that ISA’s commander Lotfi al-Harari interrogated him and was present while at least two ISA agents beat him with batons, stripped him naked and touched his genitals.

Among those still arbitrarily detained is Sifaw Madi, who was arrested on 26 March 2023 and who appeared in a video ISA published on 6 April 2023, “confessing” to converting to Christianity in 2017 and proselytizing. He is facing accusations of “apostasy”, which carry the death penalty.

A direct attack on the Amazigh community

ISA’s crackdown has disproportionately affected the Amazigh community, which includes adherents of the Ibadi faith and Maliki school.

An activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said that ISA has intensified its campaign against the Amazigh community, citing leaked lists containing names of Amazigh and Ibadi activists, which suggests they might be subjected to monitoring and arrest.

Additionally, Nizar (a pseudonym) reported instances of attacks on cultural and religious sites, including the demolition of a Sufi corner in November 2023 and vandalism of archaeological sites, by the al-Hasyn Committee, which was tasked by Awqaf to combat “witchcraft and sorcery”, in October 2023. These actions targeted imams and preachers of Maliki and Ibadi followers in the northwestern city of Yefran.

“The Libyan authorities must immediately end their campaign against Amazigh and Ibadi activists, put an end to the destruction and demolition of Sufi shrines and uphold freedom of religion,” said Bassam Al Kantar.


ISA in Tripoli is nominally under the Presidential Council of the Government of National Unity and receives state funding. Amnesty International has previously documented violations committed by ISA in western Libya.

On 9 January 2024, Libya’s parliament approved a new law criminalizing “witchcraft and sorcery”, with penalties ranging from imprisonment for up to fourteen years to the death penalty.

Awqaf’s Decree No. 436/2023 established a central committee consisting of 17 officials, including a representative from security agencies, to enforce the “Guardians of Virtue” programme. Yehya Ben Halim, a prominent member of the committee, publicly praised ISA’s role in fighting “apostasy” and “liberal ideas”.