Airstrikes by the Libyan National Army are endangering the lives of scores of detainees who are being held captive in Benghazi, said Amnesty International.
The organization raised the alarm as new video evidence emerged showing three men who were among an estimated 130 people abducted by the armed group Ansar al-Sharia from a military prison in Benghazi in October 2014. In the video, the first time they’ve been seen since they went missing, the men call for an end to the airstrikes which they say have injured several people and are putting lives at risk.
“Scores of people who were abducted and are being held captive in Benghazi are trapped under fire with no way out. Carrying out airstrikes in a manner that ignores their presence violates international humanitarian law. Those carrying out attacks must take all feasible precautions to avoid or at least minimize harm to people who are not directly participating in the fighting,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
The video has been produced by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, a coalition of militias and armed groups including Ansar al-Sharia, possibly as an attempt to protect their fighters from attack. Such conduct violates international humanitarian law, and can constitute a war crime.
“No one should be held as a hostage or treated as a human shield. Even if Ansar al-Sharia were intentionally using detainees as human shields, this would not absolve the Libyan National Army of their obligation to take their presence into account and to avoid launching disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks, which may amount to war crimes,” said Mughrabi.
The three men shown in the video are identified as Mousa Abduljawad al Badri, Mohammed Abdallah Atbaiga and Omar Mohamed Ishkal. Family members of two of the men – Mohamed Abdallah Atbaiga and Omar Mohamed Ishkal – said the only contact they had with them since their abduction was through a handful of brief, monitored phone calls lasting a couple of minutes long. Mohamed Abdallah Atbaiga’s relatives said they had not heard from him in eight months before seeing him on the video.
While they were relieved to find out their loved ones were still alive, family members told Amnesty International they desperately feared for their lives given fighting which is ongoing in parts of Benghazi between the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar.
“All we’re asking for is a safe passage for them. It’s a call of humanity on the international community. Ever since his [my brother’s] arrest, our lives have been at a standstill, destroyed. My father is an old man and can’t take more,” said Mohammed Abdallah Atbaiga’s brother, pleading for his abducted brother to be allowed to leave.
The Libyan National Army has been carrying out repeated airstrikes on areas of Benghazi under the control of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries including Ganfouda.
The men in the video explain they were moved from one area to another following an airstrike a few months earlier in which several of the abducted men were injured. They also said that they narrowly survived another airstrike in early July in their new location. Activists believe the men were recently moved from the Guwarsha district of Benghazi to the residential area of Ganfouda in south west Benghazi, where they estimate that there are more than 400 families including foreign nationals, lacking basic needs such as food and medical care, who are unable to leave because of the fighting.
There have also been claims that the abducted men were released from captivity but are still trapped in Ganfouda. Amnesty International has not been able to verify these claims but what is crucial is that these men are protected and able to safely leave the area should they want to.
In recent weeks the Libyan National Army has distributed leaflets warning civilians to leave the Ganfouda district which is controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, within 48 hours, promising to provide safe routes out of the area, raising families’ fears of further attacks.
“Those being held captive do not have the option to flee an area where they face the risk of deadly airstrikes. Ansar al-Sharia and other armed groups should release all civilians who are held captive and must not prevent civilians from fleeing to safer areas. Captured fighters must be treated humanely and not used as hostages or human shields,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
Amnesty International reported the allegations that some 150 detainees were abducted from the Bouhdima military prison in 2014. The majority were accused of being pro-Gaddafi soldiers or volunteers and had been held withoutcharge or trial since the end of 2011. Since then, activists have told Amnesty International that the actual number is closer to 130 abducted detainees.
The organization visited Bouhdima military prison in 2012 and also visited a group of the detainees in April 2013 following their temporary transfer to the Kuwafiah military prison in Benghazi. At the time, many were cleared for release by the military prosecution due to the lack of evidence, but continued to be held due to pressure from militias and families of victims of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s past human rights abuses.
The Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries have released other videos in recent months showing civilians including children and foreign nationals also demanding an end to airstrikes in areas of Benghazi under their control.
Parts of Benghazi have been reduced to rubble following the launch of a military offensive by forces loyal to the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar against the coalition of militias and armed groups known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries in 2014. Two years later the fighting continues although most is now limited to areas in western Benghazi.
Forces on all sides have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. They have carried out hundreds of abductions, taken hostages, tortured, ill-treated and summarily killed detainees, and launched indiscriminate attacks on residential areas.