Revenge killings and reckless firing in opposition-held eastern Libya

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher

In the intensive care unit of one of Benghazi’s hospitals I ran into a woman whom I had met some weeks ago in another hospital, where her 5-year-old nephew was undergoing a delicate operation to extract a bullet from his chest. The child had seemingly been the victim of the reckless shooting in the air that goes on all too frequently in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.

A few weeks later the child’s uncle suffered a similar accident. He was injured in downtown Benghazi on 5 May along with several other bystanders, one of whom later died of his wounds.

A recent poster campaign organized by a youth group calls on those with weapons not to shoot in the air – an interesting and timely initiative, since the reckless shooting continues to kill and injure.

Such incidents are far more frequent than most care to admit and are generally not talked about or are often reported as attacks by pro-Gaddafi elements – notably al-Gaddafi’s “revolutionary committees” – trying to sow fear and chaos in Benghazi. It is fair to say that there is a state of denial when it comes to the less palatable aspects of the post-17 February situation in eastern Libya – notably the behaviour of some the opposition fighters, the “thuwwar” as they are called here.

In the past two and a half weeks, three men, who until 17 February worked for the once-all-powerful infamous Internal Security Agency (ISA, Jihaz al-Amn al-Dakhili), were killed in chilling summary-execution style attacks. The body of the latest victim, a father of six, was found on 10 May in the south-western outskirts of Benghazi. He had been shot in the head, his hands and feet were bound and a scarf was tightly tied around his neck. He was missing a piece of flesh from his right calf and marks on his trousers indicated that he had been kneeling. A blood-stained note bearing his name was found by the body; it said that “… a dog among Gaddafi’s dogs has been eliminated”.

Another former ISA member, a 48-year-old father of three, had been killed two weeks earlier in virtually the same manner. His body was found in the same area in the evening on 22 April. He had been shot twice in the head, had a scarf tied tightly around his neck, and his hands were tied behind his back with two plastic handcuffs. Marks on his trousers indicated that he had been kneeling.

In both cases there were no witnesses of the men’s abductions – or if there were, they have understandably kept quiet about it.

In another case, a group of armed men – some of them masked – abducted a 55-year-old father of eight, also a former ISA member, from his home in the evening on 8 May. Needless to say, they did not identify themselves nor did they tell his terrified family why or where they were taking him. The following morning his body was found, also in Benghazi’s south-western outskirts. He too was handcuffed and had been shot in the head and injured on the head and hand with a blunt object.

There are frequent night raids by groups of armed “thuwwar” on the hunt for al-Gaddafi loyalists suspected – rightly or wrongly – of being involved in some way in spying or planning or carrying out attacks, or of having been responsible for the brutal repression which was the hallmark of al-Gaddafi’s rule for the past four decades. Some of these vigilante groups are acting on the orders of so-called “detention committees” in military camps while others are seemingly acting on their own initiative. Sometimes foreign journalists are taken along in these night raids.

Former members of security agencies and al-Gaddafi loyalists are not the only targets. On 23 and 24 April the bodies of two unidentified men, seemingly from Sub-Saharan Africa, were found in Benghazi’s south-western outskirts. One had had his throat cut and his ankles were bound with a rope.  The other had been shot in the head and had sustained multiple contusions, evidence of an assault. These are only the latest such cases. In the days immediately following the overthrow of the al-Gaddafi regime in eastern Libya, several nationals of Sub-Saharan countries were brutally attacked and killed. Some were shot, some were hanged in public, and others were lynched. No investigations are known to have taken place to identify those responsible for these heinous crimes and hold them accountable.

Many African migrants have been the victims of attacks seemingly motivated by suspicions that they served as “mercenaries” with the pro-Gaddafi forces. Widespread but mostly unsubstantiated allegations, including by National Transitional Council officials, that African “mercenaries” had played a key role in the killings and attacks against demonstrators undoubtedly helped to fuel such attacks. Scores of African migrants were detained after 17 February and were repeatedly paraded in front of the world media as “mercenaries” before any investigation was even carried out to establish who they were or whether they had committed any crimes. The overwhelming majority of them were later released and allowed to leave the country when no evidence was found against them, but by then they had been unjustly labelled as “mercenaries”.

So far there is no public debate about these disturbing developments. Officials and political leaders have not come out publicly in condemnation of such killings of al-Gaddafi loyalists and African migrants, nor are these violations discussed on the new (Free Libya) TV and radio stations or in the many new newspapers which have sprung up in the past couple of months.

However, on the positive side, whenever I have raised these issues with officials or ordinary people alike, they have condemned and expressed revulsion at such attacks. Most of those I’ve spoken to seem genuinely concerned that the repression and brutal practices to which so many Libyans have been subjected for the past four decades must not be repeated and that Libya’s future must be built on the rule of law and respect for human rights.

I hope their wish is granted.