Libya Battalions Run Private Prisons
By Ali Al-Gattani
Shahhat — With reports of kidnappings, secret prisons, tribal clashes and displaced persons on the rise in Libya, Magharebia visited Shahhat to talk with Libyan Observatory for Human Rights founder Nasser Houari.
Magharebia: What is your assessment of the human rights situation in Libya?
Nasser Houari: From bad to worse. The number of prisons and illegal detention centres has increased. Now each battalion has its own special prison - some are known and others are secret.
Detainees in these prisons number nearly 8,000, according to the justice minister, and local and international organisations. Torture is widespread in these prisons as a means to extract confessions. Many prisoners have died under torture and the rest are suffering ...under detention conditions where international standards are not met.
The state, represented by the justice ministry, has tried to put these prisons under its wing, but the influence of militia commanders and prison directors are barriers to state influence and control.
Magharebia: Where are these prisons located?
Houari: In the cities of Misrata, Zawiya, Zliten and Tripoli, what I call the square of death, due to the frequency of torture and murder in these cities' prisons. Abductions are becoming common too.
The most famous cases are those of Colonel Abu Agila Habashi, Colonel Abdul Salam Mahdawi, attorney Hmida Lasfar, and student Fatima Murad Ghazzawi.
Magharebia: Given all this, what role does the government and the General National Congress (GNC) play?
Houari: They did not provide anything except for the law criminalising torture and kidnappings, a law that Justice Minister Salah Marghani had a big role in drafting. However, official state institutions did not offer anything new and the GNC is prisoner of threats made by the battalions.
The GNC operates according to agendas made by people who fear files exposing abuses and holding those responsible accountable.
This is because, if exposed, [the files] will show brigade leaders in control of decision-making, representing the centres of power and pressure groups that direct government.
Magharebia: What about prisons under the control of the Supreme Security Committee support squadron?
Houari: They are all prisons with torture. The most famous is the prison of Mitiga, which has been turned into a fort where all forms of torture are practiced. We have documented cases of people who were tortured in Mitiga prison.
One man over 50 years of age was forced to sit on an electric stove until his behind was burned.
Magharebia: What about Benghazi, where cases of abduction and assassination have increased?
Houari: Many security elements are pointing to extremist groups led by Ansar al-Sharia as responsible for the abductions in Benghazi. These groups have precedents in kidnapping.
The most notorious were the kidnapping of the Iranian Red Crescent team and the kidnapping of activist Majduleen Abeida. The arrest of Ali Fazzani and his confession of many secrets concerning assassinations and bombings prompted some battalion leaders to seek his release.
This confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt the responsibility of the above mentioned groups.
Magharebia: What are the conditions of Libyan refugees inside and outside Libya?
Houari: We have cities that were entirely displaced like Tawergha, Al-Qawalish, western Ryayna, Mashashiya and finally Darj. Many families emigrated, as they were forcibly displaced, their houses burned and their property looted.
Several young people from those cities were taken to prisons where they were tortured. The same happened to the residents of the cities of Sirte and Bani Walid.
The state did not provide anything for the emigrants and those forcibly displaced. They neither issued transitional justice laws nor decisions allowing the return of people from destroyed cities back to their homes.
We are entering our third year and the situation is still the same, if not worse. Most displaced people are living in tents lacking basic amenities.
As for those outside Libya, they are living in a state of poverty and destitution and need health care as well as subsidies for rent and for their children's education. Some were even forced to take their children out of school for lack of funds, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.