(Tripoli) – Libyan authorities should immediately drop criminal defamation charges and free Amara Hassan al-Khatabi, editor of al-Ummah daily. Al-Khatabi, who has been in detention since December 19, 2012, is on trial for “insulting” and “slandering” members of the judiciary. His private lawyer was not allowed to visit him while he was detained in prison and says he was transferred to a medical facility due to his fragile health on April 6, 2013, where he remains detained under guard.
Al-Khatabi is apparently the first journalist in Libya to go on trial for “insulting” authorities since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya should revise its laws to eliminate the offense of “insulting” officials and state institutions, and decriminalize defamation so that no one faces prison terms for that offense, Human Rights Watch said.
“Jailing journalists who accuse officials of corruption is a well-tested recipe for stifling free speech and political debate, whether or not the accusations have merit,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Libya should free al-Khatabi and eliminate its laws that provide prison terms for nonviolent speech.”
On March 2, Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani urged the prosecution to release al-Khatabi on bail due to his frail health, also saying that journalists should face fines rather than prison for professional offenses.
The basis of the charges is an article, “The Black List of the Judiciary,” in the November 21 issue of al-Ummah. The article contains a list of 87 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, all members of the public judiciary, accused of illicit earnings, accepting bribes, and loyalty to Gaddafi, along with a preface stating that al-Ummah had received this list from an unnamed source and was reprinting it as it was.
Although there is no official order to shut down the paper, al-Ummah stopped publishing its daily newspaper after the last two printed issues were confiscated.
Authorities are apparently prosecuting Al-Khatabi under article 195 of the Gaddafi-era penal code, that stipulates, “