'Free' Libya shamed by new torture claims

Libya slips back towards the barbarism of Gaddafi

The moral authority of Libya's new government was called into question by two international aid groups yesterday as confidence begins to falter that the National Transitional Council, backed by Western governments in last year's civil war, can deliver on its promises to deliver freedom and democracy.

Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) brought an abrupt halt to its operations in the Libyan town of Misrata after being asked by officials to treat torture victims, in some cases to allow members of the country's new leadership to abuse the prisoners again.

The move came as Amnesty International said it has collected evidence that Gaddafi supporters had been tortured to death in makeshift detention centres.

The claims by MSF in Libya's third largest town – a centre of resistance against the Gaddafi regime last year – come amid growing concern for the security situation and evidence of human rights violations. Earlier this week, fighters loyal to the former dictator raised the old Libyan green standard above the key oil town of Bani Walid after fighting that led to at least four deaths.

Human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns that local authorities have routinely used torture against suspected opponents. In particular, they warned that sub-Saharan Africans, who were accused of being mercenaries during the nine-month conflict, are being targeted. MSF has been working in Misrata since last August and the group says it has been increasingly confronted with patients who have injuries caused by torture during interrogation sessions outside official detention centres and jails.

MSF has treated 115 people with torture-related wounds and reported all the cases to authorities in Misrata. Since January, several of the patients who were returned to interrogation centres have been tortured again, MSF said in a statement. "Some officials have sought to exploit and obstruct MSF's medical work," said the charity's general director, Christopher Stokes. "Patients were brought to us for medical care between interrogation sessions, so that they would be fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable.

"Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions."

Other humanitarian groups have raised fears. Amnesty International revealed that several prisoners accused of being Gaddafi loyalists died as a result of torture while being held in makeshift detention centres. Delegates from the group had found visible evidence of torture on detainees during visits to prisons.

The United Nations envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, said the NTC was failing to rein in militia groups: "The former regime may have been toppled, but the harsh reality is that the Libyan people continue to have to live with its deep-rooted legacy."

The allegations come almost a year after the start of the uprising against Gaddafi's 40-year rule. After initially being brutally suppressed, the rebel movement blossomed with assistance from a Nato bombing campaign.

Speaking in August last year, David Cameron said: "There will undoubtedly be difficult days ahead. No transition is ever smooth or easy.

"But today the Arab Spring is a step further away from oppression and dictatorship and a step closer to freedom and democracy. And the Libyan people are closer to their dream of a better future."

Last night, the Foreign Office urged the NTC to investigate the charities' reports. "The MSF report is shocking and the Libyan authorities should thoroughly investigate the claims. We condemn all human rights abuses and have repeatedly made clear that the transitional government must live up to the standards that it has set for itself and make a clean break with the past," a spokesman said.

In its report, Amnesty said it had found that detainees had been suspended in contorted positions, beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains and bars and wooden sticks, and given electric shocks with live wires and Taser-like electro-shock weapons.

"After all the promises to get detention centres under control, it is horrifying to find that there has been no progress to stop the use of torture," said Donatella Rovera, of Amnesty.

Last July, Human Rights Watch reported widespread looting and arson by the Nato-backed rebels.

What has gone wrong, and what needs to be done?

The growing anti-government protest movement

The country is run by the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose popularity has waned since the revolution. Critics say it lacks transparency, has been slow to restore basic public services and that too many of it members are tainted by their previous roles in Gaddafi's regime. Since October, there have been protests in Benghazi, where the revolution first began in February last year. These reached a head on 21 January, when armed protesters stormed the NTC's headquarters there, hurling grenades and homemade bombs while the council's chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, was inside. The NTC has promised to disband once elections are held for an interim government. Voting is scheduled to take place in six months, but there are fears they could be postponed.

 

The lawless militias

The ragtag rebel army, that surprised the world when it successfully marched on Tripoli last year, is being slowly disbanded. But it's not soon enough for many Libyans. In recent months, there have been several fatalities as militias from rival cities clash. This week, four were killed in fighting in Bani Walid. A plan to reintegrate the fighters by enrolling them in the armed forces has had limited uptake. In Wednesday's UN report, Libya envoy Ian Martin warned that the NTC had failed to bring the armed militias under control and that these clashes could escalate.

 

The defeated Gaddafi loyalists

Many of Gaddafi's most high profile supporters have fled the country. His family members are either dead, exiled or imprisoned. But it's another story for the lower-level supporters and the thousands who fought the late dictator's army. The UN report said delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross reported viewing over 8,000 detainees in 60 makeshift detention centres around the country. Some form of justice will eventually have to be meted out to these inmates, but so far there has been little discussion of what form this might take. Some of those who "lost" in the civil uprising have experienced vigilante justice at the hands of the NTC's fighters, who have been responsible for looting, arson and extra-judicial killings in pro-Gaddafi towns such as Sirte and Tawargha. Preventing revenge attacks and healing the wounds of the conflict must be one of the NTC's priorities.

 

The fate of Saif al-Islam

Gaddafi's most prominent son, below, and one-time heir apparent is being held in the small mountain town of Zintan, an hour's drive south of Tripoli. He's been there since he was captured in November. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in June last year – but the militia fighters who captured hold him say they want to try him in the country, where if convicted, he would face the death penalty.

 

Getting business going again

Economic grievances were at the heart of the Arab Spring – and the revolt in oil-rich Libya. But three months on from the death of Gaddafi, banks are still not fully operational and there is a cap on cash withdrawals which means businesses relying on regular cash flow are struggling. There is also uncertainty over whether – as an unelected government – the NTC can authorise the deals needed to unlock the country's potential.

 

Missing people

Thousand of people are still missing. Some were killed in fighting, while others kidnapped by Gaddafi's forces. Many disappeared in prisons under the former regime or are in makeshift detention centres. A database of all the people still missing is being compiled, and DNA samples are being taken from mass graves being excavated. But it will be some time before the thousands can be identified.

 

Border security

Libya's southern border with Chad, Niger and Mali, is notoriously difficult to police. The area has long been a conduit for weapons and migrants from sub-Saharan African coming into southern Europe. This flow of weapons has long worried Libya's neighbours and the international community, which are fearful they could fall into the hands of terrorist groups active in the region.

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