Libyan rebels tarnished by human rights report

An Amnesty International report released today said Libyan rebels 'committed abuses' amounting to 'war crimes,' raising fresh concerns about post-conflict justice in Libya.

By , Staff writer

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    An anti-Gaddafi fighter walks at a checkpoint north of the besieged city of Bani Walid September 13.
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While pro-Qaddafi forces carried out numerous atrocities throughout Libya's civil war, rebel groups are also to blame for serious human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International.

In a report released today, it blames Muammar Qaddafi loyalists with extrajudicial killings and widespread torture, but says rebels “also committed abuses that in some cases amounted to war crimes.”

The report not only illustrates the degree of violence and desperation in Libya during the fighting, but also raises fresh concerns about the ability the National Transitional Council (NTC) to reconcile with figures from the Qaddafi regime and oversee a peaceful transition of power. Since the fall of the capital on Aug. 21, the NTC has struggled to establish civilian control in Tripoli and across the country.

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The report not only illustrates the degree of violence and desperation in Libya during the fighting, with the bulk of war crimes committed by the now-fallen regime. It also raises fresh concerns about the ability the National Transitional Council (NTC) to reconcile disparate anti-Qaddafi forces and oversee a peaceful transition of power. Since the fall of the capital on Aug. 21, the NTC has struggled to establish civilian control in Tripoli and across the country.

Stories of abuses committed during the fighting are now commonplace in Tripoli. In addition, many Libyans today also describe concerns about how violence can still be aimed at innocent suspects, despite the manifest goodwill toward anti-Qaddafi fighters on the streets.

The most severe cases conducted by anti-Qaddafi forces include lynchings of soldiers when captured, especially in the early months of the revolution in eastern Libya when hit squads made their way through towns with target lists of Qaddafi loyalists.

“Whatever is happening between the [former] government forces and the rebels, there are lots of people who are sabotaging and misusing the situation, and are taking advantage for revenge on each other,” says a family member of non-Libyan man whose injuries at the hands of anti-Qaddafi forces have shocked the family and friends.

The man, who had worked for a former regime member who has since fled Libya, was handed over to pro-NTC fighters at a checkpoint. Relatives told the Monitor that he was subjected, for several hours, to electric shocks, severe beating, and threats that he would be killed if he did not confess to having weapons and his body would be thrown into the Mediterranean Sea where it would “never be found.”

The man was eventually saved when a rebel intervened and vouched for him. The suspected Qaddafi supporter received apologies from the local officer.

“They think that just because they have a gun, or they have contacts, they can have anyone picked up and torture them,” says this family member.

'Settling of scores'

In Tripoli today, active relations with members of the former regime, pro-Qaddafi actions in the past, or even just a personal grudge can cause trouble. Indeed, revenge attacks against suspected loyalists of the former regime and opportunistic “settling of scores” continues, according to Amnesty.

“The new authorities must make a complete break with the abuses of the past four decades and set new standards by putting human rights at the center of its agenda,” Amnesty's senior director Claudio Cordone said in a statement. “The onus now is on the NTC to do things differently, end abuses and initiate the human rights reforms that are urgently needed.”

The NTC, whose leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil only arrived in Tripoli from the former rebel headquarters of Benghazi on Saturday, has stated repeatedly that it will not tolerate abuses. But the myriad forces that have converged on the capital – from cities in eastern Libya, to towns in the western mountains, blending with a mix of irregular volunteers and ad hoc neighborhood militias – has made total control impossible.

“The NTC is firmly committed to upholding human rights and the rule of law … the violation of rights no longer has a place in Libya,” the NTC said is a statement issued in response to the Amnesty report. “The NTC is putting its efforts to bring any armed groups under official authorities and will fully investigate any incidents brought to its attention.”

Amnesty took testimony from 200 detainees in rebel hands since the fall of regime, and “believes that hundreds of people have been taken from their homes, at work, at checkpoints, or simply from the streets.”

It reports that many were ill treated upon arrest, were “beaten with sticks, backs of rifles, kicked, punched and insulted, at times while blindfolded and handcuffed.” Sometimes they were “shot after being seized,” said Amnesty.

'Widespread and systematic' abuses

Most Libyans speak of the far greater crimes committed by the Qaddafi regime during more than four decades of power.

Qaddafi himself, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence minister Abdullah al-Senoussi have been wanted since May by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, for “widespread and systematic” attacks that left thousands dead, according to chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Obampo.

Among many crimes, and “evidence” of orders coming from Qaddafi himself, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo found that pro-Qaddafi forces “shot demonstrators with live ammunition, used heavy weaponry against participants in funeral processions, and placed snipers to kill those leaving mosques after prayers.”

Amnesty likewise noted that pro-Qaddafi forces, especially during the fight for the besieged town of Misurata, “launched artillery, mortar and rocket attacks against residential areas” and “used inherently indiscriminate weapons such as anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs.”

Qaddafi forces also engaged in an “extensive campaign of enforced disappearances” of perceived opponents, abducting thousands from their homes, mosques and streets, reported Amnesty. During the conflict, “some of the disappeared appeared in broadcasts ‘confessing’ to carrying out activities against Libya’s best interests or belonging to Al Qaeda.”

Forced confessions

Among the confessions broadcast on Libyan state TV was that of Abdelhamid Shgheib, who was captured during the Misurata fighting in mid-June. Today he recalls his ordeal while standing in Abu Salim prison, showing the scars on his wrists where the handcuffs once were.

He says he was severely beaten, then threatened, and told to “confess” on television. “They forced us what to say,” recalls Mr. Shgheib. “All the crimes which they did, they wanted us to say that we did this to our own people.”

They were coached for two days on what to say, says Shgheib. “Before we began recording, they put so much make-up on us to hide the signs of beating. They wanted us to look like a Libyan woman, made up for a wedding.”

They had to state that they had even raped their own families, says Shgheib. “And they wanted me to say ‘Muammar before God’ – this sentence disturbed us more than the beating.”

Shgheib was not alone, and such confessions provided a staple on Libya’s state TV during the conflict. Today some are posted on YouTube, including one uploaded in May, in which Naser Abdul Salem, who was captured in Misurata, stated that rebel forces “made me rape girls and kill them and [mutilate] them and throw them where Qaddafi soldiers were staying,” in order to implicate government troops.

Few Libyans bought such propaganda, though there are many such examples. For Amnesty, such forced “confessions” are just part of the crimes committed by both sides – though with far more magnitude by pro-Qaddafi forces – during Libya’s revolution.

“Those responsible for the dreadful repression of the past under Col. Al-Qaddafi will need to be held accountable,” said Mr. Cordone of Amnesty. “The [revolutionaries] must be judged according to the same standards. Without this, justice would not be done and a vicious cycle of abuses and reprisals risks being perpetuated.”

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