By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Libya researcher
It is no secret that beatings and torture are endemic in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Since spring 2011, Amnesty International has met countless people who described being beaten, electrocuted, threatened with death and otherwise abused inside detention facilities manned by anti-Gaddafi armed militias.
Yesterday, I met Mohamed (not his real name), who was arrested and tortured by militias from Misratah on 16 October 2011.
Scars were still visible on his arms. Besides severely whipping him for about an hour and a half, the armed men applied a burning piece of metal to his skin.
He was later shot in the legs and left without medical treatment in a metal container for several days. He said that by the time his wounds were cleaned, his legs had developed an infection so severe it was contaminated with worms. Today, he is unable to walk.
Another man still detained by an armed militia in western Libya told us that in early May he was beaten all over his body with metal wires and cables. Across his cell, another man too afraid to complain just pointed to his own injuries, whispering that they were the result of a fresh beating.
Since Tripoli fell under the control of anti-Gaddafi forces in August 2011, Amnesty International has documented some 20 deaths as a result of torture in custody.
This week, I met with the family of one of the victims, Imhamad Salem Ali Aqila, a 33-year-old soldier from al-Gaddafi’s forces, who died on 20 February. His relatives were told that a group of armed men came into the Jdayem prison at night in al-Zawiya, where he was being held, and beat him to death.
Although Jdayem prison is under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, guards there failed to stop the armed militia men from entering and exacting revenge.
I met another family mourning a loved one’s death under torture. He died on 3 May 2012 at a Tripoli hospital, some six weeks after a group of armed men abducted him in the street near his home in the city. Despite all their efforts, his relatives were unable to visit him in detention. They later found his body at the hospital with a fractured skull.
We saw forensic reports backing up the stories of the mourning relatives.
Women, too, are beaten by armed militias – a fact attested to by three women I spoke to this week as they recovered from torture.
One was electrocuted and beaten all over her body; another had severe burns all over her after militia members doused her in boiling water; and the third was suspended and beaten with metal wires.
All three women were released without charge. One was brave enough to complain to the Prosecutor General’s office. Ever since then, she has been receiving phone calls threatening her with dire consequences if she does not withdraw her complaint.
Prosecutors and other judicial and law-enforcement officials also face threats, coercion and even violence by members of armed groups.
A police officer in al-Zawiya told me that he frequently receives verbal threats not to investigate ongoing cases of torture. His colleague’s house was shot at and a homemade explosive device was thrown inside one night in April.
Despite the mounting evidence, officials in the National Transitional Council maintain that beatings and torture are not systematic and that the situation is improving.
But to date, no thuwwar – as the anti-Gaddafi fighters are commonly known – have been held to account for torturing or otherwise abusing detainees. Instead, they were granted immunity from prosecution, further entrenching the climate of impunity that was a hallmark of Libya during al-Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
An anti-Gaddafi fighter told Amnesty International how he was held for several hours by armed men in Tripoli, during which time they shot him in the leg, and beat and kicked his bare flesh. He was only released after his own armed militia intervened.
Another anti-Gaddafi fighter, whose two brothers were both arrested and tortured by armed militias in the past six months, expressed his disbelief and shock at human rights developments in the new Libya.
He said: “I left my family, risked my life, and went to the front to secure a better future… for freedom, dignity and the rule of law. What is happening in Libya now is not what we fought and sacrificed for.”
‘Under al-Gaddafi we suffered, and now we are suffering again’ (Blog, 14 May 2012)
Libya: NTC must investigate death of another Tawargha man under torture (News story, 19 April 2012)
Libya: Militias threaten hopes for new Libya (Report, 16 February 2012)
Libya: ‘Out of control’ militias commit widespread abuses, a year on from uprising (News story, 16 February 2012)