By Imad Cheklif.
Tripoli, 15 June 2013:
Two members of Libyan National Party (LNP) could face the death penalty tomorrow because of a controversial . . .[restrict]cartoon used during the Congress election campaign in 2012. However, the defenders claim that the prosecution’s case is based on a chronological mistake that is being deliberately exploited for political reasons.
Amnesty International has called for the case to be dropped. It has called it “ludicrous”.
The trial of Libyan National Party policy manager Ali Omar Tekbali and its General-Secretary Fathi Sager, which opened in May, is scheduled to continue tomorrow at Tripoli’s Criminal Court. Among the accusations against the two men is that they spread discord among Libyans, as well as incitement to hatred and insulting the Prophet Mohamed and Islam. Two of the charges carry the death penalty.
At issue is an election poster with a cartoon calling for gender equality and women’s rights, produced during the campaign for GNC seats last June. The picture had a group of men discussing the role of women in Libyan society. Among them was a bearded figure, similar to the representation of the Prophet Mohamed used in an anti-Islamic comic strip published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, three months later.
Tekbali say that to make the LNP stand out from among the hundreds of political entities during the election, he decided to create a cartoon poster to support women’s rights. He produced one in the middle of which a young women, wearing a scarf and with books under her right arms, is ready to go to university. She is surrounded by four male cartoon figures who give their opinions about her.
“I wanted to represent the three different categories of men: two young men who belong to LNP, a middle-aged man and an old and conservative, bearded one. The young men say: “Women are a complementary partner [of men] in the community”. The middle-aged man says: “Women… are a part of the community” and the conservative, bearded, old man says: “For God’s sake, what’s she doing outside the house? ”, said. Three phrases follow the cartoon in the poster: “Healthy societies are made by men and women”, “Men and women are two branches from a same tree”, and “Youth of today is the key of tomorrow”.
The poster had been on the streets of Tripoli for weeks during the electoral campaign period, without any complaints, says Tekbali a professor of geology and writer. “I wrote my phone number on the poster, so people could call me. I never got any complaints.” A few months later, however, a man went to the District Attorney with the poster and an edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The magazine had stirred up a great deal of fury when in 2007 it re-published the notorious Danish cartoons insulting the Prophet in 2006. And in September 2012, it again published offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. These led to widespread protests throughout the Muslim world and were seen as a trigger for the 11 September Benghazi violence, which resulted in the murder of four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens in an assault on the US consulate.
Last November, the offices of the Libyan National Party were raided by a unit of the Supreme Security Committee and closed down. Shortly afterwards, Tekbali was summonsed by the District Attorney. He accused Tekbali of using the cartoon to mock Islam and the Prophet. During the meeting, claims Tekbali, he showed an edition of Charlie Hebdo. But he pointed out that “this publication was dated September 2012”, three months after he made his poster. After the meeting, Ali Omar Tekbali was pretty confident that the case would go no further. But, it was then filed by the District Attorney.
Tekbali claims he picked the cartoon from internet which, he says, proves that the cartoon could not be the same as the one mentioned in the report. “I chose a picture from “Google Images”. I typed in “Muslim men with beards”. There were a lot of pictures with no text. I have no idea where the cartoon I took comes from originally. By the way, I wrote an article criticising the Charlie Hebdo magazine when they published picture of the Prophet. In the poster, the character I chose represents a part of the society; he has nothing to do with the religion. It is obvious when you read the cartoon”, Tekbali argued.
On 13rd of February 2013, Ali Tekbali and the LNP’s lawyer, Suleiman Elmensli, met the judge. “The judge asked me if I wanted to insult Islam or the Prophet with the poster. I replied: ‘I am Muslim, I will never insult my religion’”, Tekbali stressed.
“I am pretty confident for two reasons. First, the DA’s file refers to a magazine published months after the event. And when you look at the poster, it is all about social issues, not religion. And the article 15 of the constitutional declaration ensures the freedom of speech for political parties. But if it goes to trial, I fear it may establish a precedent”, LNP’s lawyer told the Libya Herald.
“I believe in the justice of my country,” says Tekbali. “I am confident. I am sure the case will be dismissed. I have done nothing wrong.” He adds that the Dean of the Faculty of Science of Tripoli University wrote a letter to support asserting he had never heaed Takbali speak disparagingly of Islam.
For his part, Fathi Sager has never spoken to the media.
“The charges against Ali Tekbali and Fathi Sager are ludicrous and must be dropped immediately” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s MENA programme director, “If convicted on these charges Ali Tekbali and Fathi Sager would be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.”
The human rights’ organisation has pointed out that some of the laws under which the two politicians have been indicted are from the Qaddafi era and were used to suppress dissent. These include spreading discord among Libyans and seeking “to change basic principles” of the constitution.
Sahraoui continued: “It’s been almost two years since Libya guaranteed freedom of expression in its constitutional declaration. The authorities must stand by that pledge and urgently repeal all laws which criminalise freedom of expression and assembly and impose the death penalty.
“It is outrageous to think that speaking out on women’s rights has become a crime punishable by death at a time when Libyan women are calling for increased participation in public life and the Constitution-drafting process.” [/restrict]