• Sheet of paper Report

Libya: Rule of the Gun — Abductions, Torture and Other Militia Abuses in Western Libya

October 28, 2014


Since the start of the conflict in western Libya on 13 July 2014 between the Libya Dawn [Fajr Libya] coalition of militias and their rivals predominantly from the town of Zintan and area of Warshafana located southwest of Tripoli, militias and armed groups on all sides have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL, the laws of war), some of which amount to war crimes. The clashes followed months of tensions and a deep political divide over the legitimacy of state institutions, the shape of Libya’s political transition and the future of its security forces. Serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law have also been perpetrated in Benghazi where forces loyal to retired General Khalifa Haftar have been fighting against a coalition of militias and armed groups known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries since mid-May 2014.

The political crisis and armed conflict engulfing Libya have led to the formation of two competing governments, each backed by one of the warring parties and by a set of international actors. The interim government, which was appointed by the elected House of Representatives, has been based in the eastern city of Tobruk since the Libya Dawn coalition of militias attacked some of its members and took control over strategic infrastructure and ministries in Tripoli on 24 August 2014. The second, which is self-appointed and known as the National Salvation Government, is based in the Libyan capital and is backed by some members of the former parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) and the Libya Dawn coalition.

Since 13 July 2014, militias and armed groups have launched indiscriminate attacks in urban areas of the capital, Warshafana (southwest of Tripoli) and Zawiya with complete disregard for civilians and civilian objects, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to seek protection in safer parts of Libya or across its international borders. According to estimates by UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 287,000 people displaced within and around Tripoli and Benghazi as of 10 October 2014. A further 100,000 people had reportedly fled Libya to neighbouring countries. In most cases, militias have failed to give effective advance warning of attacks to civilians or take other necessary precaution to spare civilians as required by IHL. Seemingly unconcerned with the consequences of their actions, they fired GRAD rockets, mortars, artillery and anti-aircraft machine-guns into crowded civilian areas, hitting mosques, hospitals and homes and causing severe shortages in electricity, water, food, fuel and medical supplies.

Amnesty International has documented a number of indiscriminate attacks that have resulted in the killing and injury of civilians and damage to medical institutions, civilian homes, businesses and infrastructure. These attacks amount to war crimes. Following the takeoverof Tripoli International Airport by Libya Dawn on 23 August 2014 and the withdrawal of Zintan-led forces, clashes have continued over the control of Military Camp 27 in the area of Warshafana, southwest of Tripoli, at times reaching Zawiya, and parts of the Nafusa Mountains such as Kikla. Since then, forces allied with the Libya Dawn coalition have indiscriminately shelled the area of Warshafana causing wide-scale displacement of civilians, estimated at 14,500 families in the first two weeks of September alone. A number of civilians have been injured and killed, although no reliable statistics are currently available. According to press reports, Al-Zahra Hospital was hit by rockets on 21 September 2014 prompting the evacuation of patients and staff. The attack followed weeks of heavy clashes, at times preventing medical staff access from accessing the hospital and leading to a “severe shortage of medicine and medical supplies” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Satellite images taken between 20 September and 2 October 2014 show the destruction of what is believed to be a hospital support building in Al-Zahra and damage to vehicles within the hospital compound.

On 17 September, Amnesty International interviewed 15 patients from the area of Warshafana that were being treated in al-Rahma Hospital in the city of Mahdia in Tunisia. Of these, 12 were civilians, including a boy aged 10. All had sustained shrapnel injuries as a result of the shelling of residential areas or were injured by stray bullets between August and September 2014. They all reported to Amnesty International that forces allied with Libya Dawn had looted, vandalized, damaged or set fire to private houses, farms and businesses in their towns when they entered the area. The Warshafana Shura Council estimates that hundreds of homes in the towns of al-Sahla, al-Maya, al-Tina, al-Tweiba in the area of Warshafana have either been destroyed, burnt, or looted between 4 August and 25 September. An analysis of satellite images of the Warshafana region between 25 July and 10 October 2014 shows damage to civilian objects, infrastructure and roadblocks. The most extensive damage can be observed south of al-Maya and east of al-Tina, both located near Military Camp 27 where some structures have been levelled to the ground.

GRAD rockets have also been fired from Warshafana at urban areas in Zawiya, including at a medical facility. At about 1am on 14 September, a rocket hit the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Zawiya Hospital, injuring 10 people, including doctors, nurses, patients and visitors, and damaging one of the unit’s walls. Ten others suffered from shock or suffocation as a result of inhaling smoke. According to a doctor who is a member of the Crisis Committee in Zawiya, seven patients were being treated in the ICU at the time. Statistics provided by the Zawiya Hospital indicate that 21 other civilians were injured as a result of the shelling of Zawiya between 3 August and 18 September 2014.

Since the start of the armed confrontations, militias on all sides have carried out tit for tat abductions. Many civilians, including civil society activists, lawyers, journalists and public figures have been threatened, abducted and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment solely on account of their origin, opinion or perceived political affiliation. Those who were eventually released have gone into hiding or sought refuge outside of Libya. Others are still looking desperately for ways to leave. Amnesty International was able to interview 15 individuals following their release. Their stories spoke of paralysing fear, humiliation and pain inflicted by prolonged beatings with plastic tubes, metal bars and sticks or electric shocks. Some refused to have their name or experience mentioned in this briefing for fear of reprisals against them, their families, their homes or other property. In some cases, abductions appear to be carried out in order to secure a prisoner exchange. This amounts to hostage taking.

All parties have also captured and detained fighters, raising concern for their safety and treatment. Amnesty International considers that all detainees held by militias are at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment and possibly summary killings. The organization’s concerns are heightened by a prevailing pattern of widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by these same militias with complete impunity since the 2011 armed conflict. During this time, successive governments have been unable to demobilize or disband these militias.

Instead, they have provided them with monthly salaries and at times mandated them with carrying out various tasks such as providing security to strategic installations or areas. Three years of failure by the Libyan authorities to hold them accountable have emboldened militias and perpetuated their belief that they are above the law. Militias have continued to carry out arbitrary arrests, refused to hand over detainees into state custody, hindered the interim government’s transitional justice efforts, obstructed the releases of many individuals despite prosecution release orders, and perpetrated attacks against internally displaced persons as well as acts of torture and other ill-treatment.

Amnesty International calls on all parties to immediately cease the abduction of civilians and not to treat anyone in their custody as hostages. Anyone held solely on account of their political affiliation, opinion, place of origin or ethnicity must be immediately and unconditionally released. The organization further calls on all parties to treat captured fighters humanely in accordance with international humanitarian law, ensure that their families are notified of their whereabouts and are able to communicate with them, that they receive adequate medical care and are protected from torture and other ill-treatment. In particular, commanders must make it clear that torture and other ill-treatment will not be tolerated, and remove from their ranks any individuals suspected of having ordered, committed or acquiesced to such acts. A failure to do so may result in commanders being held accountable for acts committed by their subordinates.

When perpetrated during an armed conflict, torture and cruel treatment constitute war crimes, as does hostage-taking or the destruction or seizure of the property of an adversary – unless such destruction or seizure is imperatively demanded by the necessities of the conflict.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can still exercise its jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Libya since 15 February 2011 as per United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970. In light of the wide-spread abuses continuing to take place in Libya, Amnesty International welcomes the ICC Prosecutor's statement of 25 July 2014, in which Fatou Bensouda warned that her office “will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who commit crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction in Libya irrespective of their official status or affiliation”. The organization also notes that the UN Security Council, in its Resolution 2174 of 2014, has reaffirmed that it will take punitive measures against individuals responsible for “planning, directing, or committing, acts that violate applicable international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or acts that constitute human rights abuses, in Libya”.