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Amnesty International today called on the Libyan authorities to immediately clarify the whereabouts and legal status of four men – two Libyan and two Moroccan nationals – held in Libya seemingly in connection with Amazigh cultural or academic activities. The organization expressed concerns that the four men might be held solely on account of their perceived interest in Amazigh language and culture, in which case they would be prisoners of conscience.
Two Libyan twin brothers, Mazigh and Maghris Bouzahar, were arrested on 16 December 2010 from their home in Tripoli allegedly by members of the External Security Agency, an intelligence body. Their relative, residing in Canada, told Amnesty International that they were taken for questioning in relation to a meeting one of the brothers held with an Italian student visiting Libya. They have been held ever since.
The Italian student was detained for about three weeks before being released and allowed to leave Libya on 24 December. According to Libyan Amazigh cultural rights activists in exile, he was interested in Amagizh language and culture in Libya.
Several days after the arrests, members of the External Security Agency returned to the home of the Bouzahar brothers and confiscated a number of items, including all books related to Amaghiz culture and a computer.
A few days after the arrest of the Bouzahar brothers, news emerged in Morocco that two Moroccan nationals, Al-Mahfouz Asmhari and Hassan Ramou, had been arrested in Libya. The two are researchers at the Royal Moroccan Institute for Amazigh Culture, respectively, in the Centre of Historical and Environmental Studies and the Centre of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. They had travelled to Tunisia in the framework of their academic research, and are believed to have visited Amazigh artifacts. They are reported to have travelled to Libya from Tunisia on 14 December. They reportedly spent the next four days in Nalut, in the Western part of Libya in the Nafusa Mountains, famous for its Amazigh granary. Their families in Morocco lost contact with them since 19 December, the day before they were meant to travel back to Tunisia. They are believed to have been arrested by members of the External Security Agency and to be held at an undisclosed location.
The four men continue to be held by security agencies reportedly without charge in breach of Article 26 of the Libyan Code of Criminal Procedure which sets the limit of 48 hours for law enforcement officers to refer suspects to the Department of Public Prosecutions unless accused of certain offences, including those “against the state”, in which case suspects can be remanded in custody for up to seven days. Article 26 further stipulates that the Department of Public Prosecutions must question the accused within 24 hours and then issue an order for release or detention. Further, the four are reported not to have access to lawyers in contravention to Law No. 47 of 1975 on prisons. On numerous occasions, Amnesty International has raised concerns that security agencies in Libya continue to wield extensive and unchecked powers and breach Libyan legislation as well as human rights law and standards with total impunity, including provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) relating to arbitrary arrest and detention and judicial safeguards.
Amnesty International calls on the Libyan authorities, at the very least, to grant the four men immediate and unimpeded access to their lawyers and families. The two Moroccan nationals should also be granted access to their consular representatives.
Amnesty International is also concerned that the arrests of the four men might be a result of the Libyan authorities’ intolerance to activities perceived as promoting the Amazigh cultural or linguistic heritage. As a state party to the ICCPR, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Libya is under the obligation to guarantee that all people are protected from discrimination on any grounds including ethnic, linguistic or cultural ones and must have the right to take part in cultural life. Should the four men be detained on account of their peaceful academic, linguistic or cultural activities, Amnesty International would consider them to be prisoners of conscience and call for their immediate and unconditional release.
The Libyan authorities claimed in their submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2003 that all Libyans are of a “common racial origin, all profess Islam and speak Arabic”. The state report added that: “The fact that all Libyan citizens share a common origin, religion and language has undoubtedly been a determining factor in the absence of racial discrimination in the country”. Groups based abroad, such as the Libyan Working Group, the Tabu Front for the Salvation of Libya, and the World Amazigh Congress disagree with this assessment and argue that the Libyan Nationality Code is inherently discriminatory in defining citizenship as “Arab”. Such groups also complain that the Amazigh language and culture is not recognized and that obstacles prevent the Amazigh community from preserving their language and culture. For example, Law No. 24 of 1369 prohibits the usage of languages other than Arabic in publications; official documents; public spaces; and private enterprises. Additionally, Article 3 of Law No. 24 prohibits the use of “non-Arab, non-Muslim names” as determined by the General People’s Committee [ equivalent to prime minister’s office]. The law provides no opportunity for parents to appeal against the decision of the General People’s Committee.
Libyan authorities also seem to show little tolerance towards Amazigh cultural rights activists, even those based abroad. In November 2009, the Libyan authorities deported Khaled Zerari, deputy head of the Word Amazigh Congress from Libya upon his arrival from Morocco to attend the funeral of a known Amazigh figure in Libya. After questioning him for several hours at the airport, Libyan law enforcement officials forced him to board a flight to Rome, from where he returned to Morocco. No official reason for the ban was provided, but it is believed that he was prevented from entering Libya due to his activism for the rights of the Amazigh in North Africa.