East Libyan military court sentences journalist to 15 years

East Libyan military court sentences journalist to 15 years in prison
3 min read
Ismail Bouzreeba al-Zway, a journalist critical of Haftar, has been jailed on vague terorrism-related charges, sparking outcry from human rights activists
Khalifa Haftar's eastern Libyan administration does not tolerate any political dissent [Getty]
A military court in Libya's eastern administration has sentenced a local photojournalist to 15 years in prison on vague terrorism-related charges, prompting an outcry from human rights groups on Friday.

The verdict sent a chilling message, local advocates said, underscoring the perils that journalists must navigate in east Libya, where military commander Khalifa Haftar has moved to quash all dissent — and more broadly in a war-torn country overrun with fractious militias.

Ismail Bouzreeba al-Zway, 39, was first scooped up by security agents while covering a local news event in his hometown of Ajdabiya, east Libya, in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global press freedom group.

He was accused of working for Al-Nabaa, a privately owned Libyan news channel broadcast from Turkey that eastern Libyan authorities consider to be affiliated with Islamist “terrorism.”

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The UN Mission in Libya expressed concern that al-Zway's detention and trial “appear to violate Libya’s laws as well as its international obligations,” and appealed for his immediate release.

Ajdabiya, like most of Libya’s east and south, is controlled by Haftar, a former general backed by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates who has vowed to rid the country of Islamist militias. Haftar’s 14-month campaign to capture Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in the west, from the rival Turkish-backed government collapsed earlier this year.

Rights watchdogs say Hifter’s war on “terrorism” is indiscriminate, failing to distinguish between extremist militants and ordinary critics, and that his forces regularly use arrest, abduction and torture to try to exert control.

When security agents looked through al-Zway’s cellphone upon his arrest, they discovered private messages expressing discontent with Haftar’s rule and criticizing the military command. He was swiftly spirited away to a military prison in Haftar’s stronghold of Benghazi, according to the Libyan Organisation for Independent Media.

Legal amendments passed in 2017 broadly empower east Libyan military courts to prosecute anyone suspected of supporting terrorism. A report last year by the Tripoli-based Libyan Central for Press Freedom documented dozens of attacks on reporters by Hifter’s forces who it said “prohibit all journalists who are not loyal to it, and thus totally curtail all aspects of a civilian state.” More than 80 journalists have fled the country since 2014.

A spokesman for Haftar's forces did not respond to requests for comment.

Three Libyan press organisations issued a joint statement Friday saying they had just learned that in a secret trial last May, a Benghazi military court sentenced al-Zway to 15 years in prison on charges of communicating with a TV channel that supports terrorism. He was barred from speaking to a lawyer or notifying his family, the statement said.

The groups denounced what they called “the exploitation of the fight against terrorism, which is a legitimate goal, to muzzle voices and confiscate rights and freedoms.”

Al-Zway’s friend and colleague Reda Fhelboom, a prominent Libyan journalist who last year was abducted by a western militia over his own reporting about human rights issues, rejected the charges against al-Zway as absurd.

“He may have different opinions from Haftar and his allies, and yes, he was active in civil society groups, but does that make him a terrorist?” he asked.

As far as Fhelboom knew, al-Zway had simply uploaded videos of cultural activities and sports matches in his hometown to a personal YouTube channel, which was picked up by the Turkish-affiliated Al-Nabaa channel without his knowledge.

“It is very difficult for journalists to work in any part of Libya,” said Fhelboom, speaking over the phone from Tunisia, where he fled after a torturous 12-day detention in Tripoli. “It’s dangerous."

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