Libya: Heavy weaponry used to disperse peaceful protesters demanding economic rights
At least six peaceful protesters were abducted and several others were wounded after armed men fired live ammunition including from heavy machine-guns to disperse a demonstration in Tripoli on 23 August, according to eyewitness testimony and video evidence examined by Amnesty International. The organization is calling for the immediate release of all those abducted, for a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the use of force and for those responsible to be held accountable.
On Sunday protesters took to the streets in several cities in the west of Libya, including Tripoli, Misrata and al-Zawyia, to protest against deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. In Tripoli, at around 7.30pm, unidentified men in military camouflage clothing opened fire on the crowd without warning, using AK-style rifles and truck-mounted guns.
The GNA has the responsibility to uphold the right to peaceful protest, protect protesters from those seeking to silence them with live ammunition and address the underlying issues that have led people to come out onto the streets.
Sources told Amnesty International that at least six protesters were abducted during the same incident. The attack happened in an area of Tripoli controlled by the al-Nawasi militia, nominally operating under the Ministry of Interior of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International said that this and information they had received from individuals affiliated with the al-Nawasi militia that some of those abducted were in its custody were strong indications that this militia was behind the attack.
“The GNA has the responsibility to uphold the right to peaceful protest, protect protesters from those seeking to silence them with live ammunition and address the underlying issues that have led people to come out onto the streets,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Instead of reining in abusive, unaccountable militias and armed groups, the GNA has been relying on them for security, law enforcement and fighting its rivals. This lawlessness and impunity only perpetuate the suffering of civilians in Libya, who are not even able to safely voice their legitimate grievances about the dire economic and humanitarian situation without facing the barrels of guns. We are calling on the GNA to immediately conduct a thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into the unjustified use of force against protesters, and ensure that all those responsible are held accountable. The whereabouts of all those abducted must be revealed and those detained must be immediately released.”
Amnesty International spoke to five eyewitnesses and examined photos and video footage of the protests in Tripoli.
Legitimate demands met with unlawful force
At around 3pm, protesters began gathering in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Tripoli. Some protesters went to demonstrate outside the headquarters of the Presidential Council, which presides over the GNA. Police were present, guarding the premises, but no incidents were reported there and the protesters later returned to Martyrs’ Square.
One protest leader told Amnesty International: “We are protesting for water, we are protesting for electricity, we are protesting so young Libyans do not have to emigrate to Europe.”
At around 7.30pm, some protesters made their way towards the headquarters of the High Council of State, an advisory body to the GNA which is located in the Radisson Blu Al Mahary Hotel. As they were marching, unarmed, along Tarik el-Shati, a highway in Tripoli next to the sea, unidentified armed men wearing military-style camouflage clothes opened fire on them.
We are calling on the GNA to immediately conduct a thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into the unjustified use of force against protesters, and ensure that all those responsible are held accountable. The whereabouts of all those abducted must be revealed and those detained must be immediately released.
According to witnesses, photos and video evidence, the assailants were carrying AK-style rifles, and live rounds are audible in video footage. Videos also show assailants using a heavy machine-gun mounted on a pick-up truck to fire live rounds into the air to disperse the protesters and pushed them back towards Martyrs Square. Witnesses said that there were no warnings or any other attempt to disperse the crowd peacefully before the shooting started. Amnesty International geolocated the videos, determining that some showed images from Tarik el-Shati and others from Martyrs’ Square.
Witnesses told Amnesty International that they saw at least three men being wounded. The organization examined photos showing a man with possible bullet wounds in his lower right side and back, and a video showing a man who appeared to be unconscious being carried on a motorcycle. The shooting continued to be heard until around 9pm.
One protester told Amnesty International: “The images of armed groups firing on peaceful protesters brought back memories of the February 2011 protests against [the late former leader of Libya] Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi.”
As the protesters began dispersing around 9pm, the assailants followed them and kept firing live rounds. Some protesters responded by blocking streets with burning tyres in an attempt to defend themselves.
According to three sources, at least six protesters were abducted by unknown assailants and their whereabouts remain unknown. Sources told Amnesty International that they believe that the al-Nawasi militia is arbitrarily detaining them in a location close to Tarik al-Shati.
One protest leader told Amnesty International: “They [militias] want to establish themselves as guardians of the Libyan people.”
On 23 August, the GNA Ministry of Interior issued statements condemning the attackers, denying their affiliation with them, and promising investigations. However, the following day, Fayez al-Sarraj, the President of the Presidential Council and the Prime Minister of the GNA, said: “Those who protested did not obtain the necessary permits to protest from the relevant authorities… Small groups of infiltrators infiltrated the protesters, some of whom were armed…. Riots and destruction of public and private property took place… We warn [the public] about infiltrators trying to incite sedition and sabotage.”
Despite Fayez al-Sarraj’s comments, Amnesty International has found no evidence that there were armed individuals among the protesters or that the protesters attacked on Tarik al-Shati were endangering the lives of others.
Despite the recent announcement of a ceasefire on 21 August between the GNA, which controls much of the west of the country, and the Libyan National Army, which is in control of the east, the humanitarian situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. Protests over the deteriorating economic situation are also taking place this week in the city of Sebha in the south of Libya and in the town of al-Qubh in the east.
A recent statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross raised the alarm about the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the country, amid the ongoing economic crisis and its impact on the lives and livelihoods of all those in Libya.
Libya continues to be plagued by powerful militias and armed groups, who commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and other crimes with complete impunity. Not only are militia members not held to account for their crimes, but authorities continue to pay them salaries and at times praise their efforts in providing security to citizens.