Torture in Libya: toenails or fingernails?

Sometimes it’s all in the details. Yesterday I was sending out a press release about Amnesty’s new report on Libya’s rampaging militias.

The press release (here) includes a lot of disturbing information about how various armed groups - apparently barely answerable to the ruling National Transitional Council - have detained people suspected of being former pro-Gaddafi fighters, tortured many of them and, in at least dozen instances, tortured them to death. Others have been rounded up, taunted, beaten, filmed for “trophy”-style videos, and then apparently summarily shot, with their bodies dumped. This is how the Daily Telegraph wrote up the story.

As anyone who’s been following recent events in Libya will know, this pattern of “reprisal abuse” is now well-entrenched. Amnesty’s reported on various forms of it since before Gaddafi’s killing. Meanwhile, numerous NTC promises to tackle the problem have come and gone.

So, as I was saying, when I was getting the press release ready a colleague queried this line in it:

At least 12 detainees held by militias have died after being tortured since September. Their bodies were covered in bruises, wounds and cuts and some had had nails pulled off.

“Was that fingernails or toenails”, she wondered. I wasn’t sure. Should I clarify it? In a way, you might say it doesn’t much matter. Isn’t it enough to say they’ve been brutalised and killed? Maybe, but if you’re documenting this abuse you should, I reckon, be specific in every way possible. These people have suffered and it’s right that their suffering is honestly and fully recorded. Their relatives also deserve to know. And the perpetrators need to be confronted with their crimes - all of them, down to the last grisly detail - and fully held to account.

So, I checked. It was both. In some instances fingernails had apparently been pulled out; in others toenails (I then made this clear in the amended press release). This is one case:

Fakhri al-Hudairi al-‘Amari, a 31-year-old policeman from a suburb of Tripoli, died on 19 November after prolonged torture. In the post-mortem they found bruise marks in parallel lines across the body; electric shock injuries; burn marks on his forehead, right forearm and left wrist; bruising around both ankles; and severe abrasions on the soles of his feet. Also, two nails were missing on his left hand. A month earlier, on 17 October, dozens of armed men had gone to his home - and the homes of his relatives - and taken him and four of his brothers away. They were all detained. Fakhri was separated from his brothers and, after various ominous telephone calls to the family, they receive word he was in a critical condition in a local hospital. He was so badly injured he couldn’t communicate and he died within a few minutes of their arrival at his bedside. Images of the body seen by Amnesty show deep bruising all over the body and limbs, as well as open wounds on the soles of the feet.

Here is another case :

Omar Brebesh, a 62-year-old former diplomat (he was Libya’s ambassador to France), died four weeks ago (20 January), apparently as a result of torture. The day before he had been detained by a Tripoli-based militia in the capital. Photographs of his body show extensive bruising to the abdomen area, cuts on his legs and a large wound on his left foot. Also, his toenails had apparently been removed.

For more - sometimes gory - detail of this kind, see the full Amnesty report and please support the campaign directed at the Libyan Chargé D’Affaires to the UK, Mahmud Nacua to get these abuses stopped.

I don’t think anyone expected Libya to be an overnight “success” (whatever that would mean) after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, but the near-institutionalisation of this boot’s-now-on-the-other-foot human rights abuse is truly depressing. Meanwhile, with inter-tribal fighting breaking out and Saadi Gaddafi issuing warnings from Niger about a pro-Gaddafi fight-back, there are, unfortunately, numerous excuses for already out-of-control militias to indulge in more wanton violence.

What hope is there? Ordinary, decent people in Libya are desperate for a better life in Libya and, to listen to some NTC members like Waheed Burshan, the interim government is aware that its run-in to the country’s June elections has been a rocky and deeply unsatisfactory one. As the attendance of thousands of people at rallies in London, Cairo and other cities around the world last weekend reminds us, the wider Middle East “human rights revolution” is far from complete and still earnestly desired by many. Meanwhile, the details matter. Toenails or fingernails. Justice or impunity. A freer Middle East and North Africa or renewed servitude. Watch this space.

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