In Benghazi, Pre-Revolution Soccer Rivalry Now Played For Keeps On Battlefield

Jailed and tortured under Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose son ran the rival team, Benghazi's local club supporters are now at the heart of the Libyan revolution.

Flags these days are Libyan, but Benghazi is also loyal to the local FC al-Ahli club. (Al Jazeera)
Flags these days are Libyan, but Benghazi is also loyal to the local FC al-Ahli club. (Al Jazeera)
Cyrille Louis

BENGHAZI – Recognizable by their bright red FC al-Ahli soccer jerseys, you can see them on virtually every street corner in Benghazi. Since the Libyan uprising of Feb. 17, local soccer supporters have been among those most active in trying to build of a new Libyan nation. Some have put their sweat into repairing pavements or roads. Others have gone to the front to fight against Colonel Gaddafi's troops.

But on a recent evening, a few supporters got together in Benghazi Central Square and recalled when they were routinely beaten up a decade ago because they were FC al-Ahli fans. At that time, about 30 supporters went through a living hell because they dared to rebel against Saadi Gaddafi – the third son of the Libyan leader – who back then was both owner and captain of the rival club based in Tripoli called Al Ahly Tripoli.

Soccer was then one of the few fields in which people would show their collective local pride, and more implicitly their rejection of the current regime. Thus, the Libyan dictator thought that it was anything but a harmless hobby.

In the summer of 2000, Saadi Gaddafi decided to reign in the unruly rival team after a series of on-field disputes. During a match between the two clubs, Benghazi players threatened to leave the field after two "imaginary" penalties and an offside goal were awarded to the rival team leader. Later, FC al-Ahli supporters refused to support the Libyan national team, and ransacked the premises of the Libyan Soccer Federation, which was then chaired by Saadi Gaddafi himself.

In the following days, Libya's Internal Security Forces rounded up several dozen supporters and sent them to Tripoli. "Before being transferred to the Ain Zara prison, usually reserved for political prisoners, they shaved our heads," recalls Abdul Salam el-Mozoughi, a strapping fan, now 42. "We were tortured for five weeks. Our torturers wanted us to confess to the worst crimes imaginable. Gaddafi's soldiers treated us like terrorists. They wanted us to say that we were in touch with political opponents in exile."

In the meantime, Benghazi's FC al-Ahli was temporarily disbanded, as 34 defendants were accused of attempting to create a political party, insulting the Libyan guide's family and criminal conspiracy. Three of the defendants were sentenced to death. Those sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.

"The truth is that Saadi Gaddafi had a grudge against us, because our team was strong, and because we refused to submit to his whims," says Murad Rhoma, who was behind bars for three years. "On the field, the other teams' players were so afraid of his fits of anger that they did not dare to try to get the ball from him," adds Abdul Salam el-Mozoughi, who was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

The supporters, who were pardoned at the end of 2005, have got their team back now. But Saadi Gaddafi does not seem to have forgiven Benghazi's inhabitants. In the early days of Libya's revolt, he seemed to have personally ordered to shoot young protesters in Benghazi.

Many FC al-Ahli supporters have taken active roles in the Libyan revolution, only too pleased to be able to take their revenge. At the end of March, six of them were killed by accident by a NATO strike. Others were shot dead by the pro-Gaddafi troops. "Our country is worth those sacrifices," says Murad Rhomas. The man is overjoyed to be able to speak openly of his pride. At present, like many other locals, he wants to devote himself totally to fight against Gaddafi's troops.

But as soon as the peace is won, they boast to their French visitors, the old Hugo Chavez Stadium will be re-baptized Nicolas Sarkozy Stadium. "Then it will be time to enjoy playing soccer again."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Al Jazeera

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

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.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

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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