(Tripoli) – Libyan authorities should not act on a criminal defamation complaint brought by one parliamentary faction against three members who criticized that party. Libya’s parliament on September 17, 2013, stripped the three members of their immunity, leaving them open to potential criminal charges for allegedly defaming political opponents.
The General National Congress (GNC) voted to lift immunity from prosecution for Hajer Gaid, al-Twati al-Aidha, and Jomaa al-Suweai after lawmakers from the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) accused the three of “defaming and slandering” them during several television appearances. Under Libyan law the loss of immunity paves the way for a potential criminal investigation and prosecution.
“The parliament’s decision to strip the immunity of three of its members is a blatant attempt to restrict political discussion and suppress free speech,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament members should understand that they are public figures and open to criticism and stop threatening to send one another to prison for their comments.”
Gaid is a member of the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a coalition of more liberal-leaning parties, while al-Aidha and al-Sweai are independent members of parliament. The Justice and Construction Party is close to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The three lawmakers could face criminal charges based on articles 262 and 439 of the Libyan Penal Code, as stipulated in the general prosecutor’s request to investigate them.
To protect freedom of speech, Libya should eliminate laws that criminalize defamation, including article 439 of the Penal Code, Human Rights Watch said.
While everyone has a right to redress when their reputation has been impugned, the remedies should be limited to civil suits with penalties other than imprisonment. Moreover international standards on freedom of expression stress the importance of the freedom for speech on public affairs, meaning there has to be greater tolerance in the law for criticism of public officials, including members of parliament, than private citizens.
If the prosecutor general brings criminal charges based on article 262, then evidence needs to be produced that the three lawmakers knowingly made