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New report: Libya held in 'stranglehold' by hundreds of militia groups

‘The authorities have failed … comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the militias’ - Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui

Hundreds of armed militias have a stranglehold on Libya and are committing a string of human rights violations with impunity, said Amnesty International today as it a published a new report ahead of this weekend’s elections in the country.

The organisation said that Libya risks repeating the violations that led to last year’s “17 February revolution” unless the winners of the elections make the establishment of the rule of law and respect for human rights their top priority.

In its 72-page report - Libya: rule of law or rule of militias? (PDF) - Amnesty says that nearly a year after Tripoli fell to the revolutionary fighters (known as the thuwwar), widespread human rights violations - including arbitrary arrests and detention, torture (including to death), impunity for unlawful killings and forcible displacement - are casting a shadow over the country’s first national elections since the fall of al-Gaddafi’s government.

During a visit to Libya in May and June, Amnesty researchers found that hundreds of armed militias are acting above the law, many refusing to disarm or join the national army or police force. The Ministry of Interior told the organisation’s representatives that it has been able to dismantle just four militias in Tripoli, a tiny proportion of the total number.

Amnesty is calling on Libya’s General National Congress and the government it appoints to publicly admit the scale and gravity of human rights abuses, unequivocally condemn them, and send a message that such violations would no longer be tolerated.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

“It is deeply depressing that after so many months, the authorities have failed so comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the militias on Libyan security, with dramatic consequences for the people that bear the brunt of their actions.

“Calls for an end to repression and injustice were what led to the ‘17 February revolution’ in the first place. Without immediate action to stop abuses and lawlessness, there is a very real danger Libya could end up reproducing and entrenching the same patterns of violations we have seen over the past four decades.

“To honour the sacrifices and suffering of Libyans, those who take on the responsibility of governing the new Libya have to make clear that they intend to bring to justice and hold accountable those who have committed human rights abuses - whatever their rank or affiliation.”

Abuse of detainees and deaths in custody

Militias are arresting people and holding them in secret and unofficial detention facilities. Despite some progress in bringing detention under central control, it is estimated that 4,000 people remain in centres outside the reach of the central authorities. Some have been held without charge for a year.

Abuse of detainees, particularly those recently arrested, is widespread. Amnesty researchers found evidence of recent beatings and other abuse - in some cases amounting to torture - in 12 of the 15 detention centres where it was able to interview detainees in private during its most recent visit.

Common methods of torture reported to Amnesty include suspension in contorted positions and prolonged beatings with various objects, including metal bars and chains, electric cables, wooden sticks, plastic hoses, water pipes, and rifle-butts. Some detainees were also subject to electric shocks.

Amnesty has acquired detailed information on at least 20 cases of death in custody as a result of torture by militias since late August 2011.

Armed clashes and forced displacement

Clashes between armed militias recklessly using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons in residential areas have continued to plague Libya, leading to deaths and injuries among bystanders and others not involved in fighting.

The southern city of Kufra, home to a Tabu minority, has seen three bouts of clashes between February and June. Amnesty is deeply concerned that such clashes, which typically involve arbitrary arrest and torture on all sides, are further entrenching divisions along regional, tribal and ethnic lines in the country.

Amnesty also strongly criticised the authorities for failing to resolve the situation of entire communities displaced during last year’s conflict and still unable to return to their homes which were looted and burned by armed militias. For example, the entire population of the city of Tawargha, estimated at 30,000, continues to be prevented from going home.

Foreign nationals at risk

Amnesty’s report finds that sub-Saharan Africans in Libya - particularly undocumented migrants - are suffering arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and beatings - in some cases amounting to torture. Those rounding up foreign nationals have generally made no distinction between migrants and those fleeing war and persecution in their countries. The plight of migrants in Libya is compounded by the authorities’ failure to tackle prevailing racism and xenophobia against dark-skin Libyans and sub-Saharan African nationals.

Lack of justice for victims

The Libyan authorities have sought to downplay the scale and gravity of patterns of human rights abuses by militias, maintaining that these are individual actions which need to be seen within the context of abuses suffered under al-Gaddafi’s rule.

Moreover, in May the transitional authorities granted immunity from prosecution to thuwwar fighters for military and civilian acts committed with the “purpose of rendering successful or protecting the February 17th Revolution.” In a June meeting with Amnesty, Libya’s General Prosecutor was unable to provide any details of thuwwar being brought to justice for torturing detainees or committing other human rights abuses.

The case of Hasna Shaeeb

One example cited in Amnesty’s report is the case of 31-year Hasna Shaeeb, a woman accused of being a Gaddafi loyalist who was originally detained for three days last October. She was subjected to electric shocks, beaten and whipped until she lost consciousness and had urine poured over her. The guards threatened to rape her mother if she did not confess.

Three days later Hasna was released without charge and has since submitted complaints through a range of channels. She was examined by a forensic pathologist, whose report corroborated her testimony. However, no meaningful action appears to have been taken to investigate her complaint. Instead she has received a string of anonymous threatening phones calls, as well as a visit in June from a person who arrested her. In March her flat was fired on by unknown attackers in the middle of the night.

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