Libya: ‘Rule of the gun’ amid mounting war crimes by rival militias

Lawless militias and armed groups on all sides of the conflict in western Libya are carrying out rampant human rights abuses, including war crimes, according to a new briefing from Amnesty International.

Rule of the gun: Abductions, torture and other abuses by militias in western Libya provides evidence that armed groups have possibly summarily killed, tortured or ill-treated detainees in their custody and are targeting civilians based on their origins or perceived political allegiances.

Likewise, satellite images released today by Amnesty International show that fighters on all sides in the conflict have displayed an utter disregard for civilian lives, with indiscriminate rocket and artillery fire into crowded civilian neighbourhoods damaging homes, civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

“In today’s Libya the rule of the gun has taken hold. Armed groups and militias are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Leaders of militias and armed groups in Libya have a duty to put an end to violations of international humanitarian law and to make clear to their subordinates that such crimes will not be tolerated. A failure to do so could result in prosecution of commanders by the International Criminal Court.

The armed groups and militias believed to have perpetrated gross abuses of human rights include members of the Libya Dawn coalition (made up of groups from Misratah, Tripoli and other towns in western Libya) and the Zintan-Warshafana coalition made up of groups from Zintan and the Warshafana area.

Satellite images obtained by Amnesty International show significant damage to civilian property in the Warshafana region, including Al-Zahra hospital which has come under heavy rocket fire. The Intensive Care Unit at Zawiya Hospital was also struck by a rocket injuring 10 people, including doctors, nurses, patients and visitors.

“Indiscriminate attacks and targeting medical facilities are prohibited under international law and can constitute war crimes. Yet, fighters on all sides in this conflict have fired GRAD rockets and artillery in crowded civilian neighbourhoods. ” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Abductions, torture and other ill-treatment 

Scores of civilians have been abducted by armed groups in Tripoli, Zawiya, Warshafana and towns in the Nafusa Mountains and held hostage for up to two months in a spate of tit for tat attacks, based on their town of origin or perceived political affiliations. In some cases, civilians have been abducted as bargaining chips, in order to secure prisoner exchanges. While several such exchanges have taken place since the start of the conflict on 13 July, abductions and other reprisals have continued.

Tripoli residents originally from Zintan told Amnesty International that Libya Dawn militias had carried out door-to-door ‘manhunts’ to seize people based on their tribal affiliation or presumed political allegiances. Militias also carried out extensive raids against civilian homes, looting and destroying property and setting homes and farms ablaze in the area of Warshafana.

When perpetrated during an armed conflict, torture and cruel treatment constitute war crimes, as does hostage-taking or the destruction or seizure of the property of an adversary – unless such destruction or seizure is imperatively demanded by military necessity of the conflict.

“Three years of failure by the Libyan authorities to hold militias accountable has emboldened them and perpetuated their belief that they are above the law,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

The international community has largely turned a blind eye to the chaos that has engulfed Libya in the years following the February 2011 uprising even though the International Criminal Court can still exercise jurisdiction to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country since then. Under a UN Security Council resolution adopted in August, sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes can also be imposed against perpetrators of human rights violations in Libya.

“In the absence of accountability, the human rights situation in Libya is likely to continue its downward spiral,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Many of those abducted told Amnesty International they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated; beaten with plastic tubes, sticks, metal bars or cables, given electric shocks, suspended in stress positions for hours, kept blindfolded and shackled for days, deprived of food and water, and forced to endure poor sanitary conditions.

A truck driver who was abducted by an armed group from Warshafana because he comes from the town of Zawiya, reported being beaten with a metal bar and given electric shocks by his captors before they poured fuel over his body and threatened to set him on fire.

Ahmad Juweida, a wounded fighter from Warshafana, was abducted by a militia from Nalut as he was being transferred to Tunisia for medical treatment, and possibly summarily killed after he was shot with a gun most likely to the back of the head.

Amnesty International is calling on all militias and armed groups to immediately and unconditionally release anyone abducted purely on the basis of their background or political loyalties. All detainees, including captured fighters who are particularly at risk of torture other ill-treatment or summary killings must be treated humanely under international humanitarian law. Commanders must make it clear that torture and other ill-treatment will not be tolerated, and remove from their ranks any individuals suspected of involvement in such acts.

Since July at least 287,000 people have been displaced internally as a result of indiscriminate attacks and fear of being targeted because of their background or presumed political affiliation, according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. A further 100,000 have been forced to flee the country in fear for their lives.

Scores of journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders have fled Libya or gone into hiding as their lives have become increasingly endangered after recurrent threats and attacks by militias. Members of the National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights, Libya’s national human rights institution, have been threatened and intimidated by militias affiliated with the Libya Dawn coalition. Amnesty International interviewed 10 media workers who have fled the capital and even the country in fear for their lives. The offices and staff of Al-Assema TV and Libya International TV have also been attacked.

According to Reporters without borders at least 93 journalists have been targeted in the first nine months of 2014.

Members of the Tawargha displaced community – long suspected by many Libyans of being al-Gaddafi supporters – are also among those who have been targeted by armed groups with scores of abductions carried out since August, and retaliatory attacks against one of their camp.