Protests Erupt In Libya Despite Media Block
LIANE HANSEN, host:
There are also protests in the North African country of Libya. There's also a government crackdown but it's difficult to get information. The government of Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, keeps tight control over the media and few foreign journalists are allowed into the country. But some news is getting out. Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division for Human Rights Watch. She's at her home in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to the program.
Ms. SARAH LEAH WHITSON (Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch): Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: How is your organization getting information about what's happening in Libya?
Ms. WHITSON: We have traveled and worked in Libya many, many times over the past several years and have developed an extensive network of contacts in Libya among lawyers, journalists, activists, victims, as well as people in the government.
HANSEN: The Associated Press has reported that there have been significant protests in the two major Libyan cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. The State Department is warning of protests in at least five other cities. What are you hearing or learning about the size and scope of these particular demonstrations.
Ms. WHITSON: What we are hearing is that the biggest demonstrations are in the east of the country in Benghazi as well as a number of other smaller cities and towns in the far east of the country, which has traditionally been more independent, let's say, from the central government in Tripoli. But there have as well been demonstrations in Tripoli.
HANSEN: And how many people can you estimate are actually participating in these demonstrations.
Ms. WHITSON: You know, that's extremely hard to say because we are only relying on eyewitnesses in the ground and estimating numbers of crowds is the most inaccurate information that people ever give. But we have reports of thousands and tens of thousands people demonstrating in various cities.
HANSEN: What do you know about how the Libyan government has responded to these protests?
Ms. WHITSON: The Libyan government has responded with shocking brutality, I would say. We have now, we'll be raising our death toll to 184, which in a scope of three days in a country with a population of six million is just a staggering number. We also have reports that government forces are using live machine gun fire and sniper fire to gun down protesters.
HANSEN: What are the demands of these anti-government protesters.
Ms. WHITSON: Well, you know, similar to the demands in Bahrain, they have evolved. They started with calling for a constitution, calling for reform, calling for an end to corruption, but with the escalating violence they are now calling for Gaddafi's ouster and for a complete transformation of the government.
HANSEN: So, at this point do you get any sense that these people are getting any closer to their goal?
Ms. WHITSON: You know, it's hard to say what the tipping point is. It's hard to know in any situation when these brittle governments will collapse. But what's also clear is that Gaddafi is apparently even more ruthless than the Bahraini authorities in that for a country that's not much bigger than Bahrain in terms of the size of its population - may be double - there have been a hundred fold more deaths.
HANSEN: Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. We reached her at her home in Brooklyn, New York. Thank you.
Ms. WHITSON: Thank you.
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