Libya’s wake-up call on torture and deaths in detention

The Libyan authorities need to draw a line under the Gaddafi-era legacy of torture. © MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages
The Libyan authorities need to draw a line under the Gaddafi-era legacy of torture. © MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages

By Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Libya researcher

A new United Nations report on torture and other ill-treatment in Libya should be a wake-up call for the Libyan authorities. It provides details of 11 cases where evidence suggests detainees were tortured to death in 2013, and mentions 16 other such cases from 2011 and 2012.

It includes details of detainees who were raped with objects such as sticks and bottles, hung upside down and beaten for hours, electrocuted, or burnt using cigarettes or heated metals. The report describes how detainees are kept in inhumane conditions – some are forced to sleep on urine and faeces and drink their own urine to survive;  others are held naked for as long as 20 days without access to a mattress or a blanket. These methods, as well as the widespread beatings with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains, bars and wooden sticks are all too familiar from Amnesty International’s visits to prisons – run by the state and militias alike – across Libya.

Detention facilities are the ugly face of Libya’s uprising. I always take a deep breath before the start of a detention visit during my missions with Amnesty International, never quite knowing what to expect. Between September 2011 and July 2012, the organization has documented 20 cases of deaths in custody supported by medical records and forensic reports. While treatment has improved considerably in certain places of detention since then, in some torture remains widespread and others it is systematic, especially in the first few days following an arrest.

I will never forget the stories I heard last month from a group of detainees recently transferred from a militia-run prison. They described what happened to them when they violated the militia-imposed prison order, which forbids detainees from communicating with one another. As punishment, they were forced to stand still with their heads facing the wall with only short toilet breaks. They told me how they were made to do push-ups or roll over while being kicked and beaten all over their bodies with metal bars, cables or hoses, or suspended by their hands for up to 24 hours. Two detainees told me they were forced to eat their own vomit after they threw up from physical exhaustion.

Others told me they were held in solitary confinement for weeks, in some cases up to 74 days, in cells measuring one square metre, with only enough space to sit cross- legged. With no direct access to a toilet, they were forced to urinate in plastic bottles and were given only one meal a day. At times, guards would enter their cells and beat them on their heads.

A 68-year-old detainee was left hanging upside down in a tree for about 40 minutes while a guard beat him with a wooden stick on his stomach. This was his treatment after being arrested by a militia under the authority of the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) – a coalition of armed groups affiliated with the Ministry of Interior. Afterwards, he was forced to walk on his knees as guards continued to beat him with rifle butts until he lost consciousness.

I always feel relieved when the detaining authorities accept Amnesty International’s permit from the Ministry for Justice and we don’t have to fight for access. It’s also a good sign when I enter a prison, which has a functioning administration – where the man introducing himself as the director is recognized as such by prison guards and detainees. But that’s not always so, as the recent UN report explains.

Since 2012, the Libyan authorities have engaged in a process of negotiating the handover of detainees captured during and after the conflict by militias that formed across the country to fight Colonel al-Gaddafi as part of a wider strategy to establish the rule of law. They did so mainly by integrating militia members into the Ministries of Justice, Defence or the Interior. But in the process, they failed to provide the necessary training to handle detainees and vet former fighters to ensure that no one suspected of having committed crimes under international law joins state institutions.

Although the Ministry of Justice says they now control some 37 prisons – a total of 6,400 detainees – the UN report points out that, in many cases, it is only nominal control. Militias retain their chain of command and rarely respond to instructions from the government or the Judicial Police, who are in theory charged with day-to-day management of the prisons. An additional 4,000 detainees are held by the Military Police, the Supreme Security Committee and the Crime Combating Department, which have also integrated former fighters, but also by militias that have refused to disband and integrate into state institutions. These militias continue to detain and torture individuals in unofficial places of detention, such as private apartments, administrative buildings and farms.

In al-Gaddafi’s Libya, torture was state policy. Since the end of the conflict, subsequent governments have said they would be different. They expressed their commitment to upholding human rights in Libya and have taken a number of measures, including adopting laws, to address abuses, in particular torture and enforced disappearances. But as the handover of detention facilities continues, and very little changes on the ground, there is a risk that crimes will be committed in the name of the state and that torture, as the UN report points out, will become institutionalized.

More needs to be done to ensure that human rights principles are at the core of the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration process, and that no one suspected of crimes under international law is allowed to integrate state institutions.

The Libyan authorities need to draw a line under the al-Gaddafi-era legacy of torture by investigating reported cases of torture and other ill-treatment, and bringing those responsible brought to justice.

Read more:Libya: Deaths of detainees amid widespread torture (News story, 26 January 2012)
New Libya ’stained’ by detainee abuse (News story/report, 11 October 2011)