Torture in Libya: la même chose

“Plus ça change”, said Channel 4 News’ Jonathan Miller during his report on torture in Libya last night.

This is the “new” Libya, post Gaddafi, with a transitional government for now and hopes that elections in April will usher in a truly representative central authority at the helm of a cleaned-up, reminted Libya. Or something like that. Except, as this C4News item made clear, people are still being rounded up and brutalised by their captors largely for political reasons in Libya, just as they were during Gaddafi’s decades-long “Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”.

Torture then, torture now. Thousands in prison without lawyers then, the same now. After days of stories about “pro-Gadaffi” hold-outs in Bani Walid, the new concern is that the abuse of detainees under the National Transitional Council is getting worse. Yesterday Médecins Sans Frontières suspended its operations in Misratah because they said that detainees were being brought to them between torture sessions. They were being asked to patch them up before they were sent back for more torture. "This is unacceptable”, said MSF's Christopher Stokes (with rather a lot of understatement).

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has relayed her concerns to the Security Council over the fact that around 8,500 supposed pro-Gaddafi detainees are being held in something like 60 different locations by a variety of Libyan militia groups. In her speech, Pillay said a “lack of oversight by the central authorities” has created “an environment conducive to torture” in Libya.

And indeed Amnesty researchers in Libya have been coming across exactly this:

  • - a 43-year-old father-of-seven called ‘Ezzeddine al-Ghool, detained by a militia 13 days ago in Gheryan, 60 miles south of Tripoli, apparently tortured to death;

- another man, a father of two from Tajura, ten miles east of Tripoli, apparently picked up by a militia in October, whose battered, disfigured body was taken to a hospital several weeks later;

- several men held in an interrogation centre in Misratah  run by the National Military Security (Amn al-Jaysh al-Watani) and in the headquarters of armed militias, who talked to Amnesty visitors only a few hours after actually being tortured (“This morning they took me for interrogation upstairs. Five men in plain clothes took turns beating and whipping me …”).

All the old torture techniques are being re-used - falaqa (beating on the soles of the feet), suspension by the wrists on doors for beatings, whippings with electric cables, electric shocks with Taser-like devices. Maybe some of the new torturers had even had this done to them in the old days. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…

I always think that Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous “plus ça change” proverb is - in British usage at least - a strange and hard-to-pin down phrase. Its paradoxical nature seems to smack of world-weary resignation (“don’t bother changing things, it’s impossible”), but the very fact that it’s often used to denounce a situation actually makes it an agent of change.

In the Channel 4 News piece an NTC spokesperson - Ahmed Jibril - doesn’t even deny that torture has been taking place; it’s just hard to stop it at the moment, he reckons. “We are not in full control”, he admits. OK, a sort of candour here. But then again Amnesty got a similar answer back from the NTC months ago (in October an official responsible for justice, Mohammed al-Alagi, said abuses would be investigated). Plus ca change, etc.

If Libya has emerged from a sort of 42-year prison sentence under Muammar Gaddafi, it is effectively out on licence at the moment. And I was saying something not dissimilar about Egypt earlier this week. The region is, you might say, still very much in need of a "human rights revolution”. Check out Amnesty’s 11 February Trafalgar Square event which aims to keep the fire burning. Plus ça change, plus c'est une révolution des droits de l'homme* …

(*Speaking of language, check out this interesting story (£) about how there has been a cultural-linguistic shift away from French in Tunisia since the revolution there. Plus ça change, moins que le français est parlé, you might say).

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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.
View latest posts