Libyan militias fighting to hold on to their grip on power

Amnesty International researchers have been in Libya looking at what’s happened in the country since the downfall of former leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. This is what they found:

The number of armed men at checkpoints, hanging about on street corners and patrolling airports has decreased dramatically in recent months in Libya. For many Libyans, life has returned to normal after the conflict. They enjoy the rights that come with the end of an oppressive regime and participate in the country’s emerging political life. They attend human rights workshops run by numerous organizations, and debate the past and current challenges facing Libya. In recent weeks, the second-hand book fair and the classic car show, both held on Tripoli Martyrs’ Square, have been attracting crowds of curious visitors.

But once you scratch beneath the surface, it becomes evident that the rule of law and respect for human rights are still out of reach in Libya. Many militias refuse to disarm and come under the umbrella of the authorities, and remain in control of detention facilities and other strategic locations. In recent days, militias surrounded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, barring anyone from entering the building, and briefly detained a journalist who was covering the incident. Armed with rifles and machine guns, they demanded the enactment of the Political Isolation Law, currently under review by the General National Congress (GNC), and the resignation of the Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz, who they claimed had failed to remove ambassadors appointed by former administrations.

The running joke made by many people we met in Libya is that the only way to get protection from abuses by a militia is to seek the help of another militia. A human rights organization thrown out of its Tripoli office by an armed militia has now moved its headquarters to a different militia’s base area.

The government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan – in particular the Minister of Justice, Salah al-Marghani – has demonstrated real political will to rein in the power of armed militias and put an end to rampant human rights abuses still plaguing the country, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture or other ill-treatment, and forced displacement. Facing tremendous resistance, but also threats and attacks from those clinging to the status quo, the Minister of Justice initiated a ministerial plan to end illegal detention and regain control of prisons across the country.

On 31 March, the Ministry of Justice came under attack by one militia who opposed the handover of detainees. Speaking at a human rights organizations’ forum – the first of its kind, convened by the Human Rights Committee of the General National Congress on 29 April in Tripoli – the Minister of Justice denounced the current “culture of torture” and unlawful prisons as the main enemies of the “17th February Revolution”, as the 2011 conflict is locally referred to. Showing great determination and courage, he pledged his government’s commitment to the implementation of the recent law criminalizing torture, enforced disappearance and discrimination, and a zero-tolerance policy for unlawful detention. Salah al-Marghani’s deadline for the handover of detainees to state authorities was clear: June 2013. Those that fail to comply will be considered “abductors” acting outside of the law.

Despite these strong words, prosecutors, criminal investigators, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and others speaking out against militia abuse have faced threats, intimidation and sometimes violence. A prosecutor in Misratah – where some 3,000 detainees are held in official, semi-official and unrecognized detention facilities – recounted to Amnesty International the difficult conditions under which the prosecution and courts operate. For instance, prosecution orders are not respected and the homes of at least two prosecutors were attacked with home-made explosives. A lawyer defending an individual accused of being an al-Gaddafi loyalist was abducted for a day and beaten and a group of men disrupted judicial proceedings in response to a court ruling they deemed too lenient. These conditions led judicial employees in Misratah to strike for two weeks in April. In the meantime, thousands of people, including some arrested as long as two years ago, remain in detention without charge or trial.

In the past two weeks an Amnesty International delegation visited 15 detention facilities – some under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, others under the nominal control of the Ministries of Justice, Interior or Defence. Others were controlled by armed brigades. In some facilities fewer cases of torture were reported to our delegates compared to earlier visits. In other facilities, the familiar methods of suspension in contorted positions and beatings for hours with various objects, including water pipes and metal wires all over the body, continue to be used. Electric shocks during interrogation, or immediately upon arrest continue to be applied in secret or semi-official facilities. Detainees also told Amnesty International delegates that they were burned with hot spoons, cigarette butts or plastic bags that had been set on fire. They were also cut with knives, even on their genitals, tied to metal beds face-down and beaten. In one detention centre, detainees reported how guards sprayed their eyes with insect repellent. One detainee reported how, at the beginning of 2013, he was suspended by his arms, while a militia man set his back on fire.

In at least four places visited by Amnesty International, namely the Majer Prison, the Department of Combating Crime in Misratah, the Supreme Security Committee in Abu Salim and the Southern Prison in al-Zawiya, individuals with visible signs of torture or serious injuries were removed from their cells during Amnesty International’s visit, according to other detainees. Men have also reported degrading and humiliating treatment, whereby their heads and eyebrows were shaved as punitive measures by militias.

Even in official prisons, under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, detainees complained of degrading and inhuman disciplinary punishments for those found breaking prison rules or “offending” guards. Punished detainees are forced to run around in the courtyard, made to crawl on their knees and beaten. In some cases, they are placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time, in inadequate conditions lacking proper ventilation or bedding, and denied family visits and other rights. In one detention facility, some detainees have recounted a particularly cruel practice, whereby guards wake them up by applying pressure on their faces with their boots.  Women are not exempt. In a prison under the Department of the Judicial Police, female detainees complained to Amnesty International that they are sometimes taken out into the courtyard and made to stand for hours under the sun or in the cold. In some cases, they are made to face the wall and beaten by hand on their necks and backs. One complained of having cold water poured over her body.  Some also reported being subjected to degrading hygiene procedures by guards, who check that women refraining from praying are indeed menstruating or that pubic and underarm hair is regularly removed.

Torture or other ill-treatment is not limited to individuals accused of having fought or supported the former government. Those accused of ordinary crimes are also subjected to similar abuses. A relatively new body, the Department of Combating Crime, which claims to fall under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and interprets its self-given mandate as combating crimes such as murder and drug trafficking, is implicated in recent cases of torture or other ill-treatment. These claims include shooting apprehended individuals in the legs. In some cases, ordinary people have been using the lack of security and the absence of the rule of law to take revenge in cases in which they are personally involved. One detainee recounted how a militia member abducted him from the street and then kicked him in the face knocking five of his teeth out, allegedly because of a personal conflict between him and his in-laws. He has been held without charge or trial in a semi-official facility for over three months.

While numerous obstacles on the road to reform remain and the human rights situation continues to be dire, many ordinary Libyans, fed-up with the power exerted by the militias, are speaking out and trying to challenge human rights abuses perpetrated by the militias. A small first-of-its-kind demonstration in al-Zawiya on 14 April under the banner “No legitimacy for injustice” denounced torture in detention centres at the hands of so called thuwwar (as revolutionary fighters are commonly known). The era when the thuwwar were treated as untouchable heroes and placed on pedestals seems to be over, and their attempts to cover-up abuses might be a sign that they finally realize that there will not remain immune from justice forever. Addressing the same human rights forum in Tripoli today, Amina Mgherbi, Head of the GNC’s human rights committee, denounced current violations as not representative of the uprising’s objectives. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan categorically rejected the militias’ attempts to impose law by arms and force, and encouraged human rights organizations and activists to continue their efforts and work.