Breaking the sound barrier on Libya

Through a combination of new technology and courage, Libyans make sure the world knows about their protests.

Libya protests
Getting information out of Libya has been difficult, but human rights groups are doing their best to follow developments

Security forces may well have massacred protesters with characteristic brutality in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Libyan authorities went to extreme lengths to stop news of the killings from getting out. Helicopters rained bullets down on people in the streets below on Monday afternoon, fighter jets launched strikes on protesters, while snipers reportedly fired from building tops, human rights groups said.

Yet, with help from satellite phones and Twitter, the news made its way out of the country as killings were underway.

Ahmed Elgazir, a human rights researcher with the Libyan News Centre (LNC) in Geneva, told Al Jazeera that he had received a call for help from a woman witnessing the massacre in progress on a satellite phone.

The phone lines in to the country have been blocked, making it impossible to verify the information. Libyans on Twitter, however, sent desperate pleas for assistance.

The killings in Tripoli came the day after a televised speech by Saif Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, warning of civil war if protests continue.”Libya is at a crossroads. If we do not agree today on reforms … rivers of blood will run through Libya,” he said.

Elgazir condemned Saif Gaddafi’s speech a “ploy by the regime” to incite violence. The streets of Tripoli had been calm until the speech on Sunday night, the researcher said.

“We hold him responsible for all the deaths that have happened in Tripoli since,” he said, adding that violence in cities including Benghazi, Baida and Zawia has only served to turn local security forces against the regime.

Al Jazeera was also suffering interference on the Arabsat satellite frequency, which Libyans were previously able to turn to as a main source of information on the protests. The news network traced the source of the jamming to a Libyan intelligence building south of the capital.

Heather Morayef, a Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), agreed that the difficulty in communicating with people on the ground was making it hard to monitor the situation.

Based on information from local hospitals, HRW has estimated that security forces carried out at least 233 unlawful killings in the town of Benghazi. It has been difficult to estimate the number killings in Tripoli on Sunday night and Monday.

Despite recent killings, human rights groups are hopeful. “It has been fantastic, not just the fact that the world is finally interested in Libya, but also the courage of Libyans to actually take personal risks,” Morayef said.

“In 1996, Gaddafi’s regime killed 1,200 prisoners on one day because the world didn’t know about it,” she explained in a phone interview.

As recently as 2006, when security forces killed approximately 20 demonstrators outside the Italian embassy in Tripoli, the regime was able to keep the deaths under wraps.

Five years later, Gaddafi’s government no longer enjoys the same impunity, rights groups said. New technology has empowered Libyans and they appear to have taken courage from successful uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.

There has also been a new found willingness to speak to the media, despite the high risk of repercussion.

On Monday, for instance, the house of Jumaa al-Asti, a senior official with the general union of trade and industry, was surrounded by security forces.

Al-Asti appears to have drawn negative attention from security forces after he criticised Gaddafi’s regime in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Bacre Ndiaye, director of the Human Rights Council at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a United Nations organisation, told Al Jazeera that his office is facing difficulties accessing information about the situation on the ground in Libya.

“There is obstruction to international communication, the use of the internet,” he said. “We’ve never had an office there, and we have very little source of independent information.”

Ndiaye said the number of people killed is likely to be much higher than initial estimates.

Yet he noted that, despite the violence, Libyans have not backed down in their demands for fundamental political change.
“What we have seen all over [the region], is wall of fear has crumbled, people are no longer fearing to ask for their rights,” Ndiaye said.

Source: Al Jazeera



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