As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I travelled to Libya last month for a press conference marking the publication of our latest report about the country. It was an unprecedented occasion. The press conference was attended by Libyan and international journalists, former prisoners and by family members of prisoners – and it was the first time an independent human rights organisation had been allowed to publicly criticise Libya's human rights record in Tripoli.
In the days before we arrived, I received emails and calls from Libyans. Dissidents abroad warned me that the press conference was a set-up, that nobody would be able to ask real questions. Libyans in Tripoli asked me what permission slips they would need to get into the conference room, and former prisoners asked for a way to contact me, in case hotel security stopped them. The excitement was palpable because this was not just a news conference but also a testing ground for a new and fragile space of free expression.
The beginning was inauspicious. The evening before, internal security agents stopped three members of the committee representing families of prisoners killed in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre from boarding a plane in Benghazi. Two others were stopped 350km from Benghazi and told not to go anywhere near Tripoli for a week. A former political prisoner was stopped outside the hotel and told to go home. Only one international journalist was able to get a visa.
But at the conference we spoke openly of the repressive legal framework that restricts freedom of expression and bans independent organisations. We criticised the security services for their lawless approach to "law enforcement". We spoke of the right of the families of those killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre to know the truth about what happened, to see those responsible punished, and to receive the remains of their relatives to give them a dignified burial. We knew the room would be full of security and that those attending might be too intimidated to ask questions.
But they spoke out. After some questions from Libyan independent journalists, the first family member bravely raised his hand to tell the story of his brother who was killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre. He held up his brother's picture and spoke of the pain of not knowing where he was for 15 years; he said he finally received a fake death certificate this year, with no information about how his brother died. After the news conference, he told me that the security agents in the room had called him in for interrogation. He did manage to get home to Benghazi safely.
It is difficult to draw conclusions about the significance of one news conference, or whether it heralds true political reform, given the lack of transparency in Libya's decision-making. Decision-making is highly personal, so any improvements that aren't institutionalised into law can be withdrawn at any point, making the future unpredictable. Libyan commentators are still debating this issue online. "We don't understand why we have this space," one lawyer told me, "and I've stopped trying to understand, because it's all about personalities. All I know is that when they withdraw, we grab the opening and push for specific demands, and sometimes we make small reforms happen."
What is clear, however, is the bravery of those in Libya who are taking the risks: writers such as Jamal al-Haji, imprisoned for complaining about torture; the journalists who expose themselves to criminal prosecution through their writing; the former prisoners fighting for compensation; the lawyers who get their prisoners released on procedural grounds; the justice secretary's fight to uphold the rule of law; and Abu Salim families who despite their long suffering – or perhaps because of it – are willing to risk arrest to publicly demand justice and dignity. In the face of laws that provide severe penalties for criticising officials and the ubiquitous security agents, who actively ensure that critics remain in fear for their safety, their courage is astounding.
For years Libyans were too scared to communicate with the outside world because of the risk of imprisonment under laws that prohibit "tarnishing Libya's reputation" or "communicating with foreign officials". To the Libyans who tried to travel to Tripoli to meet us, who spoke publicly at our news conference, who phoned or emailed us and came to meet us despite the risk of surveillance, I salute you.
Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.