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Libya: powerful military and political elites must face justice over deadly Derna floods - new report

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More than 4,000 people died, thousands more remain missing and nearly 45,000 people displaced following floods last September 


Authorities failed to issue adequate warnings ahead of two dams collapsing 


‘The Libyan authorities have yet to fully investigate whether powerful military and political figures failed to protect people’s right to life’ - Bassam Al Kantar  


The Libyan authorities have shied away from investigating powerful military and political figures for their failures in the catastrophic Derna floods last September which killed at least 4,352 people, left thousands more missing and displaced nearly 45,000 people, Amnesty International said in a new report today.  


Six months on from the deadly floods, the 36-page report - ‘In seconds everything changed’: Justice and redress elusive for Derna flood survivors - highlights how both the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces who were in control of disaster-hit areas, failed to issue adequate warnings and take other key risk mitigation measures ahead of Storm Daniel, which triggered the collapse of two dams upstream from Derna on 10-11 September. 


Thousands of people remain missing, and survivors continue to grapple with the anguish of not knowing the burial places of their missing loved ones, especially after the local authorities and volunteers rushed to bury thousands of bodies in mass graves without proper identification. 


Amnesty’s report - based on accounts from 65 people affected by the floods or involved in the response, as well as a review of official statements and documents and reports by relevant governmental bodies and UN agencies - lays bare how the two rival authorities mismanaged the disaster. High-ranking officials and commanders, and members of powerful armed groups, are still to be investigated, let alone prosecuted, for any failures over their responsibility to protect people’s right to life, health and other human rights in connection with the disaster, raising fears that they will evade justice. 


According to experts, conflicting instructions, inadequate warnings and the imposition of curfews on some of the worst-affected areas by the authorities in eastern Libya preceding Storm Daniel contributed to the heavy death toll. While some Derna residents were advised to evacuate, heavily-affected areas like Wadi Derna were overlooked. Ten minutes after the dams burst at 2:50am on 11 September, the Ministry of Water Resources announced the ageing dams were at capacity, urging downstream residents to evacuate, but by then it was too late. 


Khadija, a 20-year-old woman from Derna, who was at home with her family in the Wadi al-Warsh neighbourhood when the floods happened, described the terrifying ordeal to Amnesty: 


“We walked out and saw corpses, the extent of the destruction and people carrying their relatives’ bodies in shrouds on their shoulders. I heard the screams of mothers and children. I searched for my family members, but I could not find anyone. After a week, I learned that the people who lived in the same area had all died. In our street, where 31 people lived, only four survived.” 


No trace of Khadija’s father or twin sister were found. 


Bassam Al Kantar, Amnesty International’s Libya Researcher, said:

“Six months on from the floods, the Libyan authorities have yet to fully investigate whether powerful military and political figures failed to protect people’s right to life, health and other human rights leading to such profound loss and devastation.


“Accountability and guarantees that Libyans will not see a repeat of this tragedy are all the more pressing given the increasing likelihood of global heating resulting in further climate-induced disasters, exacerbated by Libya’s ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, fragmentation of political institutions and the power wielded by unaccountable militias and armed groups.


"The Libyan authorities, and those with de facto control of eastern Libya, must immediately release all those arbitrarily detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and put an end to reprisals against those critical of their response to the disaster.”

Refugees denied relief

Among other things, Amnesty’s investigation examines failure by both the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces to ensure timely and equitable access to relief and financial compensation for those affected by the floods. The two authorities have failed to introduce specific measures to facilitate the provision of death certificates for those missing in the floods, a measure needed to access widows’ pensions and other state aid, with women who lost their husbands most affected.  


Also, despite the distribution of financial compensation to some 13,000 affected people, some families displaced to western Libya as well as refugees and migrants have been excluded from relief schemes. Delays and fear of reprisals from the Libyan Arab Armed Forces have also deterred others from seeking aid, particularly those perceived to be opponents of the eastern authorities. Several Government of National Unity decrees introducing support measures for those affected - such as for children who lost their parents and the waiving of fees to replace official documents - only apply to Libyans, meaning refugees and migrants have been excluded.

Crackdown on dissent

Since the disaster, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and affiliated armed groups have also cracked down on people for criticising the Libyan authorities’ lack of preparedness and crisis response. The armed groups have arbitrarily arrested at least nine people who publicly criticised the authorities’ mismanagement of the crisis or who joined protests on 18 September calling for accountability. Libyan activist Al-Numan al-Jazwi, 46, was arbitrarily arrested by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces-affiliated Internal Security Agency on 16 September while he was filming aid distribution efforts in Derna. He remains arbitrarily detained without charge or trial and has been denied access to his family and lawyer.

Justice denied 

Libya’s public prosecutor’s office confirmed to Amnesty that it has initiated criminal investigations against 16 current or former officials, including the head and two members of the Derna Municipal Council as well as officials responsible for water management, dam infrastructure and Derna’s reconstruction. Their trial on charges of dereliction or refusal to perform their official duties is ongoing, with 14 held in pre-trial detention. Despite these prosecutions, higher-ranking officials and commanders and members of powerful armed groups, have not been investigated. 


Criminal investigations into the Derna disaster have taken place amid a prevailing climate of impunity for crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Libya. Rather than holding powerful commanders and members of militias and armed groups reasonably suspected of such crimes accountable, successive governments have integrated them into state institutions and rewarded them with praise, salaries and positions of power. Amnesty is calling on the international community to stand with survivors and families of victims by supporting efforts to establish an international mechanism to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses by all parties in Libya, including the facts and circumstances surrounding the loss of life and destruction in the context of Storm Daniel. 


Amnesty has shared its findings and recommendations with the Tripoli-based public prosecutor’s office, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces’ chief-of-staff and the acting prime minister of the eastern-based Government of National Stability, which is allied to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, and has requested responses. The response by the public prosecutor has been reflected in Amnesty’ analysis, while no responses were received from the other officials in time for publication.   


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‘In seconds everything changed’: Justice and redress elusive for Derna flood survivors