TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Clasping placards and standing in a neat line, a dozen men and women staged a protest against Libya’s new rulers on Monday in what they said could be Tripoli’s first public demonstration critical of the authorities who toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
In the kind of a move that would have could have earned them arrest or a beating in the Gaddafi era, the demonstrators assembled outside the city’s Corinthia hotel to demand the interim authorities, called the National Transitional Council (NTC), do more to help wounded Libyans currently being treated in Tunisian hospitals.
They said thousands of Libyans were stranded there, some with their families, and needed the support of the NTC, which increasingly has access to funds thanks to the gradual release of overseas Libyan state assets that had been frozen under sanctions.
In Gaddafi’s time, Libyans say, public demonstrations were often paid-for events, in which officials gave small sums of cash to residents to demonstrate in front of state television cameras.
Asked if the new authorities had given them any problems, one protester, Kamel Moussa, told Reuters with a smile the demonstration had gone smoothly.
“They are not hassling us,” he said. “It’s we who are hassling them!”
He said that under Gaddafi’s strongman rule such a protest would mean that “we would go to jail -- no judgment, no lawyer, no judge and indefinite (time in prison).”
“We are happy we can express ourselves in a democratic way.”
Architecture student Mohammed el-Ghadi, 21, said the NTC was not paying enough attention to wounded anti-Gaddafi fighters.
“This is a message to NTC from the people,” he said. “The Tunisians are helping but the Libyans must do their part.”
The NTC issued a statement on Monday saying it had released hundreds of thousands of dollars to help cover the hospital bills of injured Libyans undergoing treatment in Tunisia.
Ghadi and several demonstrators standing near him said they estimated about 40,000 people had been wounded in the six month conflict. They had no figure for the number of injured fighters.
Moussa said he had spent four months in the western Nafusa Mountains working on logistics for the revolution, a period when he saw many wounded people transferred to Tunis for treatment. “They remain in a very bad condition, there they have accommodation problems, material problems, medical problems.”
They said they had chosen the hotel because Ahmed Bani, an NTC military spokesman, was inside the building in a basement salon giving a news conference.
The protesters later made their way inside the hotel and strode on to the podium in the salon just as Bani was leaving the room after the press conference, and lifted up their banners for the cameras.
Among the messages were “Where is the Council? The wounded revolutionaries are bleeding abroad.” And “Your Council for the Wounded is busy with a summer vacation.”