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Cablegate: Journalist Jailed for Criticizing Government's

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O P 220852Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3593
INFO RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO PRIORITY 1127
RUEHTU/AMEMBASSY TUNIS PRIORITY 0528
RUEHAS/AMEMBASSY ALGIERS PRIORITY 0695
RUEHRB/AMEMBASSY RABAT PRIORITY 0642
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS PRIORITY 0516
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 0838
RUEHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI 4099

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TRIPOLI 000494

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DEPT FOR NEA/MAG AND DRL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 6/18/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM PINR LY
SUBJECT: JOURNALIST JAILED FOR CRITICIZING GOVERNMENT'S
POORLY-COORDINATED DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS CLASSIFIED BY: Chris Stevens, CDA, U.S. Embassy Tripoli, Dept of State. REASON: 1.4 (b), (d) 1. (C) Summary: A respected Libyan journalist was jailed on charges that a column he wrote criticizing the government's poorly-coordinated urban development efforts had incited negative public opinion and called into question the "people's authority". Released from prison pending trial after the intervention of Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the case may stem from tension between Saif al-Islam and the Prime Minister, who has reportedly led the charge to try and sentence the journalist. End summary. JOURNALIST JAILED 2. (C) Opposition websites reported in early May that Muhammad Tarnesh, a journalist and Executive Director of the Human Rights Society of Libya (HRSL - affiliated with the Qadhafi Development Foundation), was arrested and charged in connection with a column he wrote criticizing the fact that after twenty-five years of inactivity in the area of urban development, the Government of Libya (GOL) had undertaken a hasty, poorly coordinated campaign of housing and infrastructure development that featured as its primary accomplishment to date the seemingly random destruction of large numbers of residences and businesses. Lamenting the suffering caused by the widespread "'Izaala" campaign (a word that translates as "removal", and is written on buildings slated for destruction), Tarnesh's column pointedly asked readers whether anyone had seen the homes of government ministers destroyed. 3. (C) Tarnesh's column first appeared on April 1 in the "Maal wa A'mal" newspaper, published by al-Izdihar Press in Misurata. Tarnesh was subsequently arrested, the paper's editor-in-chief, Khalifa Muqattaf was questioned and al-Izdihar Press was closed by order of the Secretary of the General People's Committee for Information, Nuri Hmeidi. The column was subsequently posted in early May on the website "Libya al-Youm" ("Libya Today"). "Libya al-Youm" reported that a group of prominent Libyan journalists had met at the Journalists' League in Tripoli in early May to express solidarity with Tarnesh and Muqattaf and criticize the GOL's abuse of restrictive press laws to muzzle criticism. CHARGES MAY STEM FROM PERSONAL ANIMUS BETWEEN SAIF AL-ISLAM AND PRIME MINISTER 4. (C) xxxxxxxxxxxx told P/E Chief on May 28 that he was arrested on three charges in late April under Press Act 76 of 1972: 1) inciting negative public opinion; 2) criticizing the leaders of the Revolution, and; 3) casting doubt on the ability of secretaries of the General People's Committees (GPC's), and thereby questioning the "people's authority". xxxxxxxxxxxx was in custody for some 10 days during the initial part of the investigation. Officials from the Prosecutor General's office told him Prime Minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi had taken particular umbrage at Tarnesh's column, had orchestrated his arrest and had evinced a personal interest in seeing Tarnesh tried and sentenced. Al-Mahmoudi, who was widely rumored to have fallen from favor with Leader Muammar al-Qadhafi and was expected to have been sacked at the March session of the General People's Conference, is reportedly highly sensitive to criticism of development projects, in part because Housing and Infrastructure Board Chairman Dorda - a more charismatic figure - has received credit for the progress that has been made while al-Mahmoudi has born the brunt of criticism. Hoping to forestall criticism and possibly save his job, al-Mahmoudi undertook a poorly-received campaign of personal appearances and press availability sessions at a number of housing and infrastructure sights in the run-up to the March session of the General People's Congress. After officials from the quasi-governmental Qadhafi Development Foundation (QDF), headed by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, intervened with the Prosecutor General's office, Tarnesh was ultimately released from prison pending his trial. 5. (C) Noting that officials from the Prosecutor General's office told him they believed the charges were frivolous and unlikely to stand up in court, xxxxxxxxxxxx offered that he would personally be less confident about his case if it were not for the personal interest of Saif al-Islam, who was following his case and who, according to QDF Executive Director Dr. Yusuf Sawani, had personally raised it with al-Mahmoudi. (Note: xxxxxxxxxxxx told P/E Chief that Saif al-Islam had personally recruited him to head the HRSL because he was an avid reader of his columns and appreciated xxxxxxxxxxxx's willingness to openly question GOL officials' competence. End note.) Al-Mahmoudi had persisted in his efforts to have xxxxxxxxxxxx re-incarcerated until TRIPOLI 00000494 002 OF 002 his trial, so far to no avail. Claiming it was well-known that al-Mahmoudi and Saif al-Islam didn't see eye-to-eye, xxxxxxxxxxxx said some had speculated that al-Mahmoudi orchestrated xxxxxxxxxxxx's prosecution to strike an oblique blow at Saif al-Islam. As it stood, xxxxxxxxxxxx believed he stood a good chance of being acquitted on all three charges; the next hearing is scheduled for late-June. Laughingly noting that there was "no such thing as justice in Libya", xxxxxxxxxxxx joked that it was fortunate for him that a son of the Leader with no official position (a reference to Saif al-Islam) could trump a Prime Minister. ARTICLE STRIKES A CHORD 6. (C) Post spoke with a number of Libyans who had read xxxxxxxxxxxx's column. The broad consensus was that xxxxxxxxxxxx had given voice to commonly held frustration with what they view as an arbitrary and fruitless "development" program. (Note: xxxxxxxxxxxx is a regular columnist and is well and favorably known in Libya's sterile media environment as the author of articles that gently criticize and poke fun at government incompetence and inconsistencies. End note.) A young taxi driver who had until recently managed his family's clothing store on Djeraba Street complained bitterly that the GOL had given his family less than a week's notice that the store was slated for destruction, and had ultimately provided compensation for only one-tenth of its value. Noting that he had to delay his wedding because his family finances had suffered, he echoed comments by other Tripolitanians to the effect that the development projects and related destruction of existing structures had been badly coordinated by the GOL. 7. (C) Comment: xxxxxxxxxxxx's case underscores the personal and at times petty nature of intra-regime politics in Libya, where the limits of public discourse remain narrowly circumscribed. It is blatantly obvious to local observers that the rush to tear down old facades and put up new buildings as evidence of the revolution's benefits (keyed to the 40th anniversary of the revolution, which will fall on September 1, 2009) has placed a considerable burden on a system characterized by limited capacity. Libya, however, remains a place where one does not lightly tell the emperor he has no clothes. End comment. STEVENS

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