ZUWARAH — Proudly dressed in his military uniform, Ali Abou Soud looks out toward the sea as cargo ships sail around in circles off the coast of this Libyan town. “That one," he points out, "is sailing under the Sierra Leone flag.”
The 26-year-old dentist explains why he has stopped working for the past two weeks, and donned a soldier's uniform. “These boats came here to collect the gas and its derivatives but they can’t dock, we’re stopping them from doing so,” he says.
The objective is to block the access to Millitah, a gigantic gas complex jointly owned by the Italian energy group ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) outside of Zuwarah, 120 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli.
The site’s port is occupied by men equipped with a tent, weapons and, planted in the ground, a flag. A Berber flag.
Started at the end of October, the siege was only lifted on Nov. 15 — reluctantly and, they say here, “temporarily.” To the south, on the other hand, next to Nalut, nothing has changed. Since Sept. 29, other Berbers have continued to block one of the pipelines supplying Zuwarah.
Drawn from the reserves of Ghadames, at the crossroads of the Libyan, Algerian and Tunisian borders, the gas passes through the Nafusa Mountains, a region mostly inhabited by the minority Berber ethnic group, before arriving here on the Mediterranean coast where it is meant to be shipped off to Italy.
“After the revolution, we started with a sit-in, then we demonstrated, set up an international meeting. But Tripoli continues ignoring us,” says Ayoub Soufiane, member of the Council of Libyan Amazigh, a Berber representative organization. “The Congress received us, but only to talk to us about the Koran for 25 minutes!”
Mistrust of Islamists
The Berbers of the Nafusa Mountains, who rapidly took a leading role in the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalist troops, demand that their language and culture be recognized in Libya's future Constitution. They want the articles concerning the cultural specifics of the minorities to be adopted, by the Constitutional Committee, by consensus, and not according to the two-thirds plus one rule.
The stakes grow higher with each passing day. “If Congress rejects our demands and builds a Constitution without us, I don’t know what the next steps will be,” Ayoub Sofiane says. “Independence, autonomy … All options are on the table.”
The Libyan Berbers — mostly Ibadi, a puritan branch of Islam, distinct from the Sunni — were marginalized during Gaddafi’s long reign. Now, they demand justice. A Berber radio broadcasts several hours per day from Zuwarah, while a small Amazigh language learning book has been distributed in local schools.
And the flag, shared with all the other North-African Amazigh, is everywhere — recognizable from a distance with its blue (for the sea), green (for the mountains) and yellow (for the Saharan sand) stripes, marked in the middle with a red ideogram.
Contacts have been established in neighboring North African countries, especially with the Moroccan Berbers, who obtained the recognition of their culture in that country's 2011 Constitution.
Some of the Berbers in Libya, whose total number remains undefined for lack of a reliable census, do not approve of the more radical methods advocated by the youth leaders. Still, in substance, the demands are widely shared.
Perched on the mountainside, Yafran — the great Berber city that was bombed by Gaddafi's troops during the conflict — comes alive every weekend with the return of its residents who work during the week in Tripoli, 120 kilometers further north. Here, people greet each other with enthusiastic “Ozoul!” (“Hello”, in Berber) and share a common abhorrence for Islamists. “The government isn’t doing anything and the Muslim Brotherhood will take over power,” Sifaou Touawa, a property developer, predicts gloomily. “We’re Muslim but we don’t want some Muslim state imported from the east.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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