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Can Libya’s people be protected if Qaddafi stays?

Libya's rebels, many of whom have stories of loved ones lost to Muammar Qaddafi's regime, are driven by his legacy of torture, murder, and disappearances.

By Staff writer / March 29, 2011

A Libyan rebel stands overlooking an area where rebels gathered following clashes with pro-Qaddafi forces in Ras Lanuf, Libya on Tuesday, March 29. Libyan government tanks and rockets blunted a rebel assault on Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Tuesday and drove back the ragtag army of irregulars, even as world leaders prepared to debate the country future in London.

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Benghazi, Libya

President Obama may have equivocated last night – saying the international bombing campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces is not about forcing regime change while insisting that Mr. Qaddafi must “step down from power.”

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But in Libya’s rebel capital there’s little doubt about his intent. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizes “all necessary measures … to protect civilians” and here in Benghazi, the rebel government and ordinary civilians say there can be no true protection as long as Qaddafi remains in power.

“If you go to Tobruk, Marj, Benghazi, Zawiya, anywhere in Libya, you’ll find a family that has lost someone to this man,” says Abdel Kader Kadura, a law professor at Benghazi’s Garyounis University. “For us, for Libya, there is one killer. Qaddafi. It doesn’t stop until he goes.”

Consider the courthouse along Benghazi’s waterfront. It’s often described as the seat of Libya’s rebel government. But its true symbolic power lies in the graffiti and posters that adorn its walls and the small plaza it fronts, an outpouring of expression that’s become something of a shrine.

The images – faces of hundreds who have died at the hands of Qaddafi’s regime – are a potent reminder of the stakes of this conflict. In a very real way, they underscore the urgency of the rebel battle cry, "We win or we die," a slogan borrowed from anticolonial fighter Omar Mukhtar, whose jihad against Italy ended with his execution in 1931.

Amnesty: 'Detainees at grave risk of torture'

The reprisals may have already started. The drivers for three foreign news crews detained by Qaddafi’s forces – from CNN, AFP, and The New York Times – have remained missing after the foreign journalists’ release.

Amnesty International said yesterday it has documented “dozens” of cases of Libyan’s detained and not heard from again since the uprising began here in mid-February.

“These detainees and disappeared persons are at grave risk of torture and other serious human rights abuses,” the group said, recalling a “long pattern of … enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment” in Qaddafi’s Libya.

'My brother's fate will be repeated if we lose'

Some of the posters at Benghazi's courthouse feature martyrs of the present, such as Ahmed el-Dahlan, a 23-year-old engineering student who stormed the Benghazi barracks in the furious early days of the uprising then became a militia member. He was killed when Ajdabiya was overrun by Qaddafi’s forces two weeks ago.

Most are martyrs of the past, like Ali Abdul Hamid el-Jamil, a former officer who assisted Qaddafi’s 1969 coup and later broke with the dictator. He fled the country ahead of a death sentence in the early 1980s, but was hunted down and murdered in Turkey in 1986, part of Qaddafi’s campaign to assassinate what he called his “stray dogs.”

For hundreds of Libyans whose loved ones went missing for years after being taken by Qaddafi's regime, the possibility that they had been murdered was long only a whisper or a fear.

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