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Amnesty International report brands Libya's militias 'out of control'

Six months since the Libyan civil war ended in Muammar Qaddadi's death, a new report from Amnesty International says hundreds of militias remain active in the country, extorting money and killing their  enemies.

By Staff writer / February 15, 2012

Libyan militias from towns throughout the country's west parade through Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday Feb. 14.

Abdel Magid Al Fergany/AP

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Last week, Libya's transitional leaders requested that Niger extradite a son of Muammar Qaddafi to stand trial in the country. Today, a new report from Amnesty International lays out its case for why it would be crazy for anyone to send someone to the new Libya to face "justice."

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More than six months since Muammar Qaddafi was killed near his hometown, the torture and murder of former Qaddafi loyalists (or suspected loyalists) remain widespread. Some of the victims are sub-Saharan Africans caught in the crossfire of Libya's war, who the revolutionaries insist fought for Qaddafi. (When I was in Libya last year, I was shown African men, wearing rags and some without proper shoes, described as "mercenaries" for Qaddafi; that did not seem accurate to me.)

The militias that toppled Qaddafi's dictatorship remain outside of any central authority and, in the picture painted by Amnesty, are increasingly behaving like ferocious regional mafias. During and immediately after the war, the militias murdered scores of Qaddafi supporters in captivity, tortured many others, and razed the homes of still others to punish them for their political beliefs.

Now, Amnesty says "hundreds of armed militias ... are largely out control," that armed clashes between rival militias are "frequent," and that "thousands" of people remain illegally detained by the militias.

Amnesty researchers met "scores" of torture victims in Tripoli, Zawiya, Gharyan, Misrata, and Sirte in January and February. The victims reported a range of torture methods used against them that were once standard in Qaddafi's own prison system: electric shocks, extensive burning, whippings with metal chains, and hours tied up in contorted stress positions. Some militia members opposed to torture told Amnesty they feared reprisals if they spoke out against it. 

During Libya's uprising against Qaddafi, rebel leaders and supporters spoke confidently and often about the new era of respect for human rights that would be ushered in with the demise of Qaddafi. The reality of the early days of the new Libya has been far shot of those lofty promises. The country hasn't had the rule of law for more than 40 years, and vengeance is almost always sought in the aftermath of violent revolutions. But having spent more than two months in Libya at the start of last year, I didn't expect the situation to be as bad as the one described by Amnesty.

I imagined, wrongly as it's turned out, that the Transitional National Council would be able to use the carrot of oil revenue to bring the regional militias under control once the war was over. I was also wrong in thinking the scope of reprisals would be far more limited. Amnesty writes that the NTC "appears to have neither the authority nor the political will to rein in the militias" and is "unwilling to recognize ... the mounting evidence of patterns of grave, widespread abuses in many parts of the county."

How bad is it? There has been no investigation into the murder of 65 people in Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte last October, despite some of the militiamen responsible having been identified; 30,000 people from Tawargha have been expelled from their homes (most of which have since been destroyed) and have not been allowed to return home for the crime of having supported Qaddafi; former soldiers have been tortured until they falsely confessed to rape;  others have died after hours of electric shocks and the use of nails and drills.

Libya's revolutionaries aren't the plucky underdogs fighting for freedom anymore. They're the most powerful people in the country, at least for the moment, and some of them, according to the report, are doing horrific things with that power. Libya is currently planning elections for June, but it's hard to imagine a fair or accountable process until the militias are brought under some kind of control.

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