Libya: no joke then, no joke now

There’s a tendency in some quarters to relish the depiction of dictators as buffoonish figures. So, mocking their taste in furnishings ("despot chic") or noting that they keep pet tigers or like to issue decrees re-naming the months, is all grist to the amusement mill. I’ve nothing against it in principle. After all, very good political cartoonists like Steve Bell or Peter Brookes do this every day (albeit on a different register of satire and ego-puncturing: Michael Gove not Robert Mugabe).  What bothers me slightly, though, is the tendency to make inane jokes about (say) Kim Jong-il’s windcheater jackets when, quite frankly, the murderousness of the North Korean regime makes these quips facile in the extreme. It was a bit like that with the joking over Colonel Gaddafi’s female entourage during his visit to Italy in 2009. “Ha-ha. There’s funny old tin-pot dictator Mu’ammar, with his Amazonian retinue and a photo of a Libyan victim of Italian imperialism pinned to his chest. What a laugh.”  Perhaps Gaddafi deliberately used these devices as decoys, creating a bit of leeway on the international stage. Either way the reality has been infinitely less amusing. So for instance an Amnesty report last year spelt out the fact that, amongst other things, Libya's all-powerful security forces had powers to arrest, detain and interrogate people, and that detainees were often held incommunicado for long periods, frequently tortured and generally denied access to lawyers.  Fifteen months on, with Libya turned upside down, it’s become more and more clear that Gaddafi’s security services and armed forces have committed massive human rights abuses, in first suppressing peaceful protest and then attempting to crush armed rebellion. Here’s just one – almost “ordinary” – example from a big new Amnesty report out today: On the evening of 24 January Safai Eddine Hilal al-Sharif, a 41-year-old oil company technician from Ras Lanouf, was arrested at home by six plain-clothes men, probably from an intelligence agency. They asked his children, who were playing outside the house, if he was at home. Then they went in and took him away. Safai was literally arrested in his pyjamas. They came back with him soon after but only to confiscate two computers, a mobile, a camcorder and a camera. This time he was taken for good. His family – his wife and five children – have not seen or heard from him since.  Safai’s “disappearance” is symptomatic of Gaddafi-era repression. Unaccountable, unexplained and deeply sinister. His family say he wasn’t politically active. He just like to spend time on the internet, including on Facebook (could this have been the reason for his arrest?) His case straddles the period from pre-conflict Libya and the present one of war and regime change, and it’s rumoured that he was imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail, recently liberated by NTC forces. He may still resurface and return to his family. Let’s hope so. What kind of Libya will he see if this happens? He’ll certainly hear about the atrocities committed by pro-Gaddafi forces – pummelling attacks on civilians in various towns, deliberate cold-blooded killings of detainees including by suffocation in steel containers – and many disappearances like his own. But he might also hear about suspected war crimes by the thuwwar, the revolutionaries. There’s mounting evidence that they have summarily killed prisoners, particularly targeting black Libyans or sub-Saharan Africans on the grounds that they were “mercenaries”.  Watching some of those TV images of the NTC forces waving weapons and chanting their victory slogans, you have to wonder if anyone is going to bring these fighters into check? In particular, if the new authorities in Libya fail to bring the thuwwar war criminals to justice a cycle of violence is likely to go on for years in post-Gaddafi Libya. And that will be … well, no joke.

 

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