LIBYA – EQUATING BLACKS WITH MERCENARIES?
One of the many problems the Libyan government is grappling with today is the illegal detention of people accused of being Gaddafi’s mercenaries during the recent civil war. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, stated on 5th February 2013; ‘The [Libyan] government acknowledges that about 8,000 people are being detained across Libya, but only about 5,600 of these are in facilities controlled to some degree by the military or the Interior and Justice ministries.’
According to Libya’s Law 38 of 2nd May 2012 the Interior and Defence Ministries were required to refer all supporters of the former regime currently detained by militia, if there is sufficient evidence against them, to the judicial authorities by 12th July 2012. However, some authorities, including Lawyers for Justice in Libya, believe that Law 38 gives impunity for actions performed in the name of the revolution, stating as it does that there shall be no penalty for ‘military, security, or civil actions dictated by the February 17 Revolution that were performed by revolutionaries with the goal of promoting or protecting the revolution.’ It may be that militiamen accused in future of detaining and torturing suspects without due process of law will be able to escape sanction because of this ambiguity.
The deadline was far from being met when, on 14th July, Sarah Lea Whitson, the Middle Eastern and North African director of Human Rights Watch stated; ‘Across Libya, thousands of detainees still languish in prisons, without formal charge and without prospect of legal review. Despite months of cajoling the militias the transitional authorities missed the deadline and failed to gain control over approximately 5,000 people still held arbitrarily by armed groups, some subject to severe torture,’
Most detainees are Gaddafi security force members, former government officials, suspected foreign mercenaries or migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. There is growing evidence that militias are equating blacks with mercenaries. The Human Rights Watch has often warned about the maltreatment and torture of detainees held in militia detention centres. Many countries, with Chad at the top of the list, have denounced the treatment of their migrants in post Gaddafi Libya and it is clear that regional and diplomatic tensions will be heightened if the appeals are not heeded by the Libya government.
The Libya Herald reported on 5th February 2013 that some positive news came from the Libyan Minister of Justice, Salah Marghani, in a written note in which he states; “The Ministry has embarked on a policy that includes taking the necessary measures to end all violations and bring detention places under actual and full control of the judicial police.” The minister also made it clear that detention centres outside the control of the ministry of Justice would be criminalised.
It appears that the al-Roame facility for more than 2,000 prisoners in Misurata, which is to be under the aegis of the judicial police, will take control of all detainees in the city by mid May 2013 and this ‘model’ would be replicated elsewhere. To help, 24 prosecutors are being transferred from Eastern Libya to Misurata and thousands of new recruits to the police are being trained to control ‘judicial facilities’. Not before time it would seem and it is hoped that matters have improved since January 2012 when Médecins Sans Frontières stopped its work in detention centres in Misurata because its medical staff were being asked to patch up detainees midway through torture sessions so they could go back for more abuse.
The militias appear to be using the prisoners to revenge themselves against those who fought for Muammar Gaddafi and also as bargaining chips in the struggle for local and national power in Libya. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that some racial prejudice is involved which may have its roots in the slave trade, still active in some parts of Libya in the early part of the 20th century.
The case of Tawergha illustrates the point. In August of 2011, Misuratan militias broke out of the brutal siege of their city by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces and attacked their neighbours in Tawergha on whom the late dictator had once lavished money and favour. Accused of crimes against Misuratan civilians during the siege, all 35,000 or so residents of Tawergha fled and their town was systematically looted and destroyed by vengeful Misuratans. (Gadaffi’s forces had laagered in Tawergha whilst conducting the siege of Misurata and some of the young men of the town joined them in the fighting. Accusations of rape have been levied at them, though not yet substantiated.)
Tawergha, a town 38 kilometres or so south of Misurata, and now deserted by its inhabitants, was mostly populated with black Libyans, a legacy of its 19th-century origins as a transit town in the trans-Saharan slave trade. Now, on the gates of many their deserted and vandalized homes Misuratans have scrawled the words “slaves” and “negroes.”
Temporary sites for displaced Tawerghans have grown up and still remain in Libya. The UNHCR reports that some 20,000 of them have been registered in sites in Tripoli, Benghazi, Tarhouna and other smaller towns across the country. Another 7,000 or so were discovered in the south, near the town of Sebha. There must be some who remain unaccounted for – either staying with relatives or friends or hiding in the desert, afraid to emerge.
The UN Human Rights Council on Libya has complained that Tawerghans have been killed, arrested arbitrarily and tortured across the country. ,