Libya’s latest chapter: Senussi wanted by The Hague, NATO shirking its responsibilities

The arrest of Libya’s former head of intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi in Mauritania at the weekend has put Libya back in the headlines. It’s been bubbling under though.

Readers of this blog will know there are now longstanding concerns about torture and other abuses by Libyan militia groups supposedly under the control of the National Transitional Council (see here and here).

Now the NTC is saying it wants Senussi extradited to face trial in Libya, ignoring the International Criminal Court’s indictment for his prosecution at The Hague. It’s Saif Gaddafi all over again. Mauritania is saying it wants to conduct its own investigation into him and there’s even the possibility that he could be tried in France, but Amnesty’s view is that he should go to the ICC, which alone probably has the means to deliver a trial of the necessary scope and rigour in this vital case.

Senussi’s apprehension came on the day that John Demjanjuk died, a sort of reminder, I thought, of how bringing the world’s most serious criminals to justice has so often been bungled in the past. Demjanjuk, who was 91, was - you’ll recall - actually a free man (out on appeal) when he died in a nursing home in Germany. He was one of the Ukrainian guards at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Here an estimated 200-250,000 men, women and children were killed (mostly gassed by tank engine fumes) in 17 months (the Ukrainian guards’ job was to hustle the naked victims along a 100-metre tunnel into the gas chamber. The tunnel was known by the SS as the Himmelstrasse, the road to heaven.

There are huge differences in scale, but Senussi is likewise suspected of involvement in one of the very worst atrocities under the Gaddafi government, the Abu Salim prison killings of 1996. It’s believed that at least 1,200 prisoners were shot in less than 24 hours. Can the NTC authorities mount a trial that would properly cover that, plus numerous other crimes stretching right back to the 1970s and ‘80s (Senussi was head of internal security in the eighties), and also ensure that there’s no suppression of what Senussi may know about abuses by anti-Gaddafi militias? It’s highly doubtful.

Meanwhile, today there’s a new Amnesty report charging NATO with failing to investigate airstrikes that killed dozens of Libyan civilians during its anti-Gaddafi campaign last year. It’s pretty damning.

In one particularly notorious incident, three missiles struck on two family homes in Majer (near Zlitan, west of Misratah) at around 11pm on the night of 8 August killed 34 civilians, including eight children and eight women. At the time NATO said a military facility which “contained mercenaries, a command centre and 4x4 vehicles modified with automatic weapons, rocket launchers or mortars” had been hit. More recently, in a letter to a UN investigation team, NATO said the houses “had been identified as being used as a staging area for regime forces”. However, on examination of the site and satellite images of the area during the period of attack by the same UN investigation team found “no evidence … that the site had a military purpose”, a view shared by Amnesty.

In another case (where five members of one family, including a two-year-old girl and seven-month-old boy were killed), NATO acknowledged the possibility that “an errant weapon” had caused “such casualties”.

Forced to confront specific incidents, NATO has either resorted to military jargon (in another case it says a house nearby the one that was actually destroyed was a Gaddafi regime “command and control node”) or it has simply been vague and evasive. NATO has never properly investigated any of the incidents, even though at least 55 civilians, including 16 children and 14 women, were killed by its munitions. Not a single affected family seems to have been contact by NATO, let alone offered reparation.

It’s worth remembering this fact the next time you hear a politician talking blithely about the “great success” of the military intervention in Libya.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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