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Libya: Protests Grow Despite Massacres

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 21, 2011 (110221)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Despite the absence of international news media and shutdowns of the Internet, Libyan protesters seem determine to prove predictions that "it can't happen here" to be false for Libya. A speech Sunday night by Saif El Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons and previously viewed internationally as a voice of reform, was a disjointed medley of threats that the only alternative to his family's rule was chaos and poverty for the country. Again and again, he repeated that Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. While there is no doubt of the regime's determination to use violence to keep control, it is already showing signs of fragility, with defections and the progress of demonstrations in the capital as well as in the east of the country.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several recent reports and commentaries: two reports from AllAfrica, a commentary by Libyan-American dissident Najla Abdurrahman, and a report from Human Rights Watch on the death toll from regime attacks on protesters.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin posted today, available on the web at, but not sent out by e-mail, has a 2009 analysis of the Libyan regime on its 40th anniversary, by veteran progressive Middle East analyst Fred Halliday (who died in April 2010).

The interaction between social media and traditional media is demonstrated on the live Libya blog now being hosted by Al Jazeera, with regular updates, at

A translated transcription of the speech by Saif El Islam Gaddafi is available at: Ironically, as noted in a Feb. 21 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Saif Gaddafi did his dissertation at the Lonson School of Economics on the role of civil society in the democratization of global governance.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Libya, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++

Libya: Citizen Journalism Leads Way in Covering Escalating Conflict

Tamela Hultman

21 February 2011

As international media struggle to cover a story to which they don't have access, Libyans both inside and outside the country are using social media to plead for more visibility. No independent media is tolerated in Libya, and international journalists are being denied entry to the country.

Over the weekend, while television networks in the United States featured experts opining on why the Libyan government would be able to quickly quell the protests, activists were circulating rough videos of assaults on heavily fortified military establishments in eastern Libya. By late Sunday, thousands of tweets were claiming that large areas of Benghazi and several smaller cities had been "freed" by democracy activists, who were busy organizing a new administration.

Libyans on the ground also said the protests had spread to the capital, Tripoli, and that they believed elements of the security forces would come to their side as fighting intensified. Overnight, activists reported that police stations and other government installations were under attack. A group of ethnic leaders warned that they would block oil exports if the government refuses to back down.

Despite periodic shut-down of the Internet over recent days, pro-democracy activists have been using mobile phones to call, send photos and video and updates via Twitter to contacts in Europe and North America. In response to a plea from activists in Benghazi, the port city where government installations were under siege by protesters all weekend, supporters rallied in London, Washington and other world capitals.

Reports by eyewitnesses via social media have been consistently ahead of established news media in documenting the spread of anti-government rebellion across Libya. In reporting on numbers of casualties, the heavy armaments being deployed by government forces, the use of imported mercenaries to attack demonstrators and the extent of the unrest, the international media has lagged significantly behind the news on the blogosphere and social media.

As early as Friday, activists were circulating videos of dead African soldiers in uniform that they said were mercenaries from Chad. On Twitter, activists were exchanging information about flights arriving with more reinforcements for the government. "What kind of monster would do this?" asked one democracy supporter who reached by AllAfrica by phone. "Gaddafi is using Libyan money to exploit the poorest of the poor - offering them $1000 cash for each of our own citizens they murder."

Democracy activists reached by AllAfrica over the weekend warned that the world should be more aware of increasing conflict in Libya. They insisted that the government - which has been in power since a 1969 coup - is vulnerable. The South Korean foreign ministry confirmed that construction sites it was managing in Libya had been attacked and taken by protesters. Turkey, citing similar incidents, sent special flights to evacuate its citizens.

In response to the heavy crackdown on demonstrators, the British foreign minister on Saturday called the Libyan government's response "unacceptable and horrifying." The French government has also condemned the crackdown, as has the Obama administration in Washington. "We have raised to a number of Libyan officials, including Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, our strong objections to the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators," said U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip J Crowley.

Reporters from international media have been struggling with the ethical issues of how to use the mass of information coming from Libya. Without independent verification, many of them have noted, it is impossible to know who is sending the reports and from where. But as evidence from inside Libya mounted, there is increasing recognition that the situation warrants more attention.

Over the weekend, more and more Libyans outside the country put journalists in contact with their friends and families in Libya, jamming the telephone lines - which often were the only lines of communication open. By Monday, analysts outside were accepting the possibility of civil war in Libya, if not of the government's overthrow.

On Monday Dr. Aref Ali Nayad, speaking from Ankara, Turkey, told Al Jazeera that he had left Tripoli Sunday as an emissary for a group of religious scholars representing a large Libyan tribal grouping. "In Islam," he said, "human life is sanctified." The leaders condemn the government's use of force against demonstrators, he said, and they want to get the word to the international community.

The scholar said that members of the Libyan ruler's own Gaddafi clan are among those "with integrity" who oppose the government. He said he himself had seen the clashes in Tripoli before he left, and that the government has killed hundreds and injured thousands.

Libya: Governments Should Demand End to Unlawful Killings

Death Toll Up to 233 Over Four Days

The estimated death toll from four days of protests in cities across Libya has risen to at least 233 according to information from hospital sources in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today. From Benghazi, staff at Al Jalaa hospital said they recorded 50 dead on February 20, 2011, while the 7 October hospital reported another 10 dead the same day, giving a total of 60 killed in Benghazi on February 20. This raises the overall death toll from protests in five Libyan cities to 233 since February 17. Human Rights Watch was unable to contact two other hospitals in Benghazi.

February 20, 2011

(New York) - The African Union and African, Western, and Arab countries that have relations with Libya should urge the Libyan government to stop the unlawful killing of protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. In the last three days, the death toll of protesters reported to Human Rights Watch by hospital staff and other sources has reached at least 173.

Accounts of the use of live ammunition by security forces, including machine gun fire, against protesters near the Katiba in Benghazi on February 19, 2011, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries, raise serious concern that the authorities are using unjustified and unlawful force. The government has shut down all internet communications in the country, and arrested Libyans who have given phone interviews to the media, making it extremely difficult to obtain information on developments there.

"A potential human rights catastrophe is unfolding in Libya as protesters brave live gunfire and death for a third day running," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Libya is trying to impose an information blackout, but it can't hide a massacre."

Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that at least 10,000 protesters are protesting in the streets of Benghazi on February 20, after the funerals of the 84 protesters shot dead the day before.

According to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, the violence started on February 19 after thousands of protesters had gathered for funeral prayers of 14 of the protesters shot dead by security forces the day before. Followed by thousands of protesters, the funeral procession walked from the square in front of the Benghazi court to the Hawari cemeteries. On the way the marchers passed the Katiba El Fadil Bu Omar, a complex that includes one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's residences and is heavily guarded by state security officers.

Three eyewitnesses confirmed that the security officers in distinctive uniform with yellow berets fired indiscriminately on protesters. One protester, A.G., told Human Rights Watch, "it was at this stage that they opened fire on us. We were walking along peacefully but were chanting angrily against the regime and Gaddafi."

Another lawyer who was at the protests said to Human Rights Watch, "I could see the men with yellow berets shooting at us with live gunfire, and dozens fell to the ground. This went on for a long period of time, and I left with the injured to the hospital." Later in the afternoon, Human Rights Watch spoke to another protester who said he had left the area because "anyone who goes near the Katiba is shot." In the evening, thousands of protesters were still gathered in front of the Benghazi courthouse.

Human Rights Watch spoke to a senior medical official at Al Jalaa hospital in Beghazi who said the dead started coming in at 3:00 p.m. and that by the end of the day, he had received 23 bodies. By the morning of February 20, the number of dead who arrived at the hospital had risen to 70. He said the deaths and the vast majority of those injured showed gunshot wounds of 4cm x 4cm sustained to the head, neck, and shoulders. Medical officials at Hawari hospital in Benghazi told Human Rights Watch that they had received 14 bodies, Human Rights Watch also confirmed the death of at least one protester in Misrata on February 19, bringing the total number of those killed on February 19 to 85. Human Rights Watch calculates the total dead in four days of protests at 173.

Human Rights Watch calls on the African Union, the European Union, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other governments with ties to Libya to:

  • Publicly demand an end to unlawful use of force against peaceful protesters;
  • Announce that those responsible for serious violations of international human rights law must be held individually accountable and will be subjected to appropriate measures;
  • Impose an embargo on all exports of arms and security equipment to Libya; and
  • Restore access to the internet.

The Libyan government cut access to the internet on February 19 and had not restored service on February 20. Craig Labovitz, Chief Scientist at Arbor Networks, an international network security provider, confirmed that internet traffic in Libya dropped to zero on February 19 at 2:00 a.m. in Libya.

A lawyer told Human Rights Watch that early on February 19, security officers had arrested Abdelhafiz Ghogha, one of the most prominent lawyers in Benghazi who represented the families of those killed in 1996 in Abu Salim prison, bringing the total number of activists, lawyers and former political prisoners arrested since the demonstrations began to at least 17.

"In 1996, Libyan authorities killed 1,200 prisoners on one day in Abu Salim and they still haven't acknowledged doing anything wrong that day," said Whitson. "Today the Libyan government has shown the world that it is still using ruthless brutality against its population."

Libya: 'Help Us' Plea Pro-Democracy Activists Who Say Mercenaries Attacking Them

19 February 2011

Libyan pro-democracy protesters both inside and outside the country are using social media to spread the word of what they say are brutal crackdowns by the Libyan regime. They cite numerous accounts of mercenaries roaming Benghazi and other cities with orders to kill.

People contacted by AllAfrica say that the number of casualties is far higher than is being reported by news agencies and human rights groups. Human Rights Watch said yesterday that more than 80 people had been killed in clashes across the country.

"It's understandable, really," said Libyan American student Tariq Mohamed. "It's difficult for media and human rights groups to operate and get independent confirmation, but I'm in touch with people who say there have been more than 90 deaths today alone in Benghazi."

The port city has been a focus of anti-government protests in recent days. British Foreign Secretary William Hague today issued a statement condemning Libyan authorities for what he called "unacceptable and horrifying" attacks on protesters, using "heavy weapons fire and a unit of snipers."

Mohammed, a taxi driver in Benghazi, contacted by telephone, said he fears for his two young children. The sounds of gunfire persisted through the evening. "It's not just shooting," he said. "It's shells."

He lived for nearly two decades in the United States but returned to Libya because Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi promised change. He did not keep that pledge, Mohammad said. He struggles to feed his family, he said, in a country that is wealthy.

He said that he has family members on the streets and does not know what has happened to them. They had reported being assaulted by "foreigners" when they tried to protest peacefully. "It's crazy," he said. "We are in a desperate situation. We have no arms to protect ourselves. We need protection from international organizations."

Tariq Mohamed said the reports on Twitter and Facebook of a massive crackdown are credible. He described talking on the telephone to a contact in Libya who suddenly said, "Hold on. Hold on. Listen!" Mohamed said that he could hear the shooting - "it sounded almost like explosions" - through the telephone.

He said he doesn't sleep at night for fear of what is happening to family members, many of whom have fled from Benghazi. His contacts, he said, have confirmed the many reports that the Libyan government is using mercenaries flown in from outside the country to try to quell the uprising.

A number of sources in recent days have identified some of the attackers of protesters as being from Chad, and unconfirmed reports say others have been flown in by the government from Bangladesh and Korea. "It is despicable," Mohamed said, "to not only kill your own people, but to pay the wealth of the country to incentivize others to ruthlessly and mercilessly attack them."

Tariq Mohamed and others who are relentlessly pelting social media with ongoing messages say they have been frustrated for many years at the lack of international media or policy attention to the situation in Libya. "Unfortunately," he said, "it took the disaster of a totalitarian regime mowing down its citizens to get world to bat an eye."

Libyans are giving up their lives to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. But is anyone paying attention?

by Najla Abdurrahman | February 17, 2011

Najla Abdurrahman is a Libyan-American dissident and doctoral student in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. She resides in New York City.

Protests erupted in Libya Tuesday evening in the eastern center of Benghazi, prompted by the arrest of Libyan attorney and human rights activist Fathi Terbil early Tuesday morning -- two days ahead of Thursday's highly anticipated Feb. 17 "Day of Rage" planned in cities across the country. Terbil represents a group of families whose sons were massacred by Libyan authorities in 1996 in Tripoli's infamous Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of the regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the span of a few hours. The victims' bodies were reportedly removed from the prison (eyewitness accounts cite the use of wheel barrows and refrigerated trucks) and buried in mass graves, the whereabouts of which remain undisclosed by Libyan authorities to this day. Several years would pass before the regime finally began to notify some of the victims' families of the deaths, and it wasn't until 2004 that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi publicly admitted to the massacre at Abu Salim.

Terbil had been working closely with the victims' families, who in recent years have asked that authorities make public the circumstances surrounding the killings, as well as the location of the victims' graves. After Terbil's arrest Tuesday morning, several of the families gathered in front of police headquarters in the city of Benghazi to demand his release. According to sources inside the country, other Benghazi residents gradually began to join them, and by evening the crowd had swelled, with unconfirmed estimates ranging from several hundred to 2,000 protesters.

Although Terbil was eventually released, the crowd refused to disperse, and the protest soon transformed into an anti-government demonstration; video showing protesters calling for Benghazi residents to rise up began to circulate on the Internet. Among the chants heard were "Rise up oh Benghazi, the day you have been waiting for has come," "There is no god but God, and Muammar [al-Qaddafi] is the enemy of God," and "The people want the regime to fall." At one point in the evening, Al Jazeera Arabic managed to get Libyan writer and novelist Idris al-Mesmari on the phone during the protests in Benghazi; a breathless and agitated Mesmari confirmed that police were attacking the protesters before the connection was lost. Shortly thereafter, news surfaced of Mesmari's arrest by Libyan authorities, no doubt an unequivocal warning from the regime to those who dared communicate with the outside world.

In the meantime, Libyans residing abroad were receiving constant unconfirmed reports throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning from contacts in Libya, which they circulated on Facebook and Twitter and tweeted to various news outlets, including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press. Ironically, as hundreds of Libyans inside the country protested against the Qaddafi regime, Libyans outside the country were protesting the media's coverage of events. A group of Libyan activists and observers bombarded various news outlets with frustrated emails and tweets about both the lack of coverage and the inaccuracy of the little coverage that was given. Although multiple videos of the protests in Benghazi were circulated, Al Jazeera English posted a video that included footage of protests that were more than a year old, in addition to the more recent footage. It also initially cited the number of people killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre as 14 -- as opposed to 1,200 -- prompting exasperated tweets demanding that the news outlet check its facts and directing it to the Human Rights Watch report on the Abu Salim prison massacre.

For its part, the Associated Press initially circulated a report that induced a collective groan among Libyan observers; the report claimed that the protests had been directed not against Qaddafi, but against the current Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. Again, Libyan activists immediately blasted the AP on Facebook and Twitter for its irresponsible reporting, which contradicted video and eyewitness accounts coming from the country. Rather than actually listening to what protesters were chanting in the videos, it seems that the AP had drawn its information directly from Libyan state sources, albeit channeled through Quryna, a "private" newspaper effectively controlled by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the leader's son.

Although both Al Jazeera English and the Associated Press amended their reports after pressure from Libyan activists, the reporting on Tuesday's impromptu protests in Benghazi and the lack of information available to international media outlets are indicative of a much larger problem that Libyans have struggled with for decades: the creation of a virtual vacuum of information by the Qaddafi regime's strict censorship policies, highly restrictive press laws, and uncompromising repression of even the slightest expression of dissent. This has created considerable obstacles for Libyans both inside and outside the country attempting to communicate their struggles to the world.

Libyans are painfully aware of the fact that their country does not attract nearly the same level of interest as Egypt or Iran, except perhaps when it comes to the eccentricities of their notoriously flamboyant dictator. This, despite the fact that the Qaddafi regime has been in power significantly longer than nearly any other autocratic system, during which time it has proved itself among the world's most brutal and incompetent. Thus, from the moment a group of Libyans inside Libya -- taking a cue from their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbors -- announced plans for their own day of protest on Feb. 17, Libyan activists outside the country have been working tirelessly to get the word out, circulate audio and video, and pressure media outlets to report on Libya. If the Libyan protesters are ignored, the fear is that Qaddafi -- a man who appears to care little what the rest of the world thinks of him -- will be able to seal the country off from foreign observers, and ruthlessly crush any uprising before it even has a chance to begin. Eyewitness reports to this effect are already trickling in from Libya, and the death toll appears to be slowly mounting. Regrettably, international attention has thus far been minimal.

Another problem Libyans face is a lack of organization among potential demonstrators. Even for those who have followed events in Libya closely and are in contact with people inside the country it's difficult to gauge from the outside how organized the protesters are or how many people actually came out Thursday. For many, the outlook is a pessimistic one. Libya is a very large country with a relatively tiny population of 6.4 million scattered throughout its vast expanse, and the distance between its two most populous cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, is roughly 1,000 miles. In addition, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, there exists not a single organized opposition group or political party in Libya capable of mobilizing people to come out and protest.

Furthermore, frustration with the regime is by many accounts much higher in the long neglected eastern regions of the country, leading to fears that protests will not extend to the west, and particularly to the country's major center, Tripoli (although discontent is high there as well).

A handful of Libyans residing inside the country have released video and audio calling on people to get out and protest, including a Tripolitanian woman who made an emotionally charged appeal to other Libyan women, "Rise up Libyan women! You are half of the society. Bring your husbands and your sons out!" Only a small percentage of Libyans have Internet access, but sources inside the country tell me that while most people were aware of Feb. 17, the atmosphere in Libya has grown increasingly tense over the past days and weeks, with very few people willing to discuss the event openly.

In the coming days, the Qaddafi regime will no doubt continue to employ tactics meant to control the production of information coming into or out of Libya and to obscure as much as possible the realities on the ground -- this has long been the regime's modus operandi. As news of the Libyan regime's violent attempts to suppress peaceful protests continues to leak out of the country, it is the responsibility of the international media to be vigilant in reporting the story, and to report it accurately. Above all, they must not rely on Libyan state media for information and must make every effort to reach out to Libyan netizens, activists, and opposition groups, as well as to protesters inside the country, who are working tirelessly to communicate the details as they unfold. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the international community, including the United States government, to forcefully and unequivocally condemn the Libyan regime's attacks on peaceful protesters and to affirm their right to organize and express their grievances just as it has affirmed the rights of Egyptians and Iranians to do so. In the coming days, Qaddafi will likely try to take advantage of Libya's information vacuum to put down any uprising. If the international media and the world don't pay more attention, he will almost certainly succeed.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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