In Libya, lesbian and gay sex are both illegal. Under Section 407.4 of the Libyan Constitution, both can be punished by five years imprisonment. There seem to be no established Libyan LGBT organisations, and any expatriates able to do so depart for Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, France or the United States.
As with so many other aspects of Libyan life, tyrant Muammar Gaddafi is seemingly out of touch with reality insofar as HIV/AIDS is concerned. In 2003, he stated that he believed that it was 'impossible' to contact it through unprotected heterosexual vaginal sex. In 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV and sentenced to death in 2004. However, they were pardoned and then deported in 2007 due to international pressure on the regime.
As for general human rights, the situation is equally dire. The regime is universally deplored for its absence of independent media, independent trade unions, freedom of association and assembly, widespread surveillance of opponents, and continued arbitrary arrest, detention and execution of political prisoners and regime opponents. Ethnic and tribal communities face routine land confiscations and experience habitual institutional racism.
How did this ghastly situation arise? The (Turkish-ruled) Ottoman Empire ruled Libya from the sixteenth to early twentieth centuries, although the weakness of that great power gave its rulers considerable autonomy if they remained in the metropolitan coastal areas. Habitual anarchy and even piracy prevailed in the rest of the countryside. From 1911, Italy ruled that section of North Africa, dividing it into administrative regions, until Britain occupied it in 1943. It governed under mandate until 1951, whereupon anti-fascist King Idris assumed power within a constitutional monarchy after the nation won independence and was accountable to a democratic assembly. In 1959, oil reserves transformed the situation. Throughout the sixties, there was growing internal resentment at King Idris' wealth.
In September 1969, headed by Captain Muammar Gaddafi and other junior officers, a republican military coup unseated Idris, and Libya's brief democratic interlude ended. Independent trade unions and political parties were banned, and Gaddafi began to operate a bizarre cult of personality comparable to that of China's Mao Tse-Tung, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong-Il. Due to OPEC price rises, Libyans experienced a growing standard of living during the seventies and eighties. In terms of foreign relations, Libya has fought short-lived wars with Egypt and Chad, and assisted murderous adjacent tyrants like Bokassa (the Central African Republic), Idi Ami (Uganda) and Haile Mengistu (Ethiopia). Indeed, Zimbabwe's tyrannical ruler, Robert Mugabe, has sent the Zimbabwe National Army to provide assistance to this faltering regime.
It had considerably chillier relations with Britain and the United States. In 1980, the Thatcher administration broke off diplomatic relations after Libyan covert operatives opened fire on anti-Gaddafi dissidents outside the London Libyan Embassy, killing WPC Yvonne Fletcher. During the eighties, the regime was said to have armed and funded the IRA, German Red Army Faction and Italy's Red Brigades in retaliation for perceived assistance to expatriate anti-Gadaffi dissidents. Following the firebombing of a Berlin nightclub, the Reagan administration bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. In 1988, Libyan covert operatives were implicated in the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 108 over Lockerbie in Scotland.
Opportunism led Gadaffi to relinquish the responsible parties to the west in 2003. During the last decade, Gadaffi has positioned himself as a western ally against al Qaeda. In 2003, the Bush administration normalised relations, overlooking the regimes dire human rights and civil liberties record.
On February 15 2011, simmering antagonisms related to the Abu Salim political prisoner massacre (1996) led to a popular uprising. Police and renegade military units have defected to the insurgents, who now control much of Eastern, Northeastern and Northwestern Libya despite brutal reprisals from Gadaffi's mercenaries, elite army units and the Libyan Air Force. The United States, UN Security Council and International Criminal Court have condemned what appears to be a disintegrating regime. However, it would be foolish to write off the Libyan dictator yet, no matter how embattled his forces currently are.
Dirk Vandewalle: The History of Modern Libya: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2006.
Dirk Vandewalle: Libya Since 1969: Qaddafi's Revolution Revisited: New York: Palgrave: 2008.