Patrick Cockburn: Libyans have voted, but will the new rulers be able to curb violent militias?

World View: The armed groups who helped depose Gaddafi are now committing human rights abuses of their own, Amnesty warns

Share

Libyans voted in their first democratic election yesterday to choose an interim national assembly to rule the country after the overthrow of Mu'ammer Gaddafi. International interest in this crucial election has been sparse compared to the wall-to-wall coverage by the foreign media during the eight-month war.

Throughout the Libyan crisis, human rights organisations have on the whole performed better than television, radio and print press in describing what was happening in Libya. Too many journalists and media outlets decided early on that Gaddafi's forces were the black hats and the insurgents the white hats. They pumped out anti-Gaddafi atrocity stories, often without checking the facts, such as a supposed campaign of mass rape by government troops. Investigations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a United Nations team discovered no evidence for this, but their findings were largely ignored by the media. The insurgents claimed that they had found the bodies of government troops executed by their own side when they tried to defect, but Amnesty uncovered a video of the same men alive and being aggressively interrogated by the rebels, who most likely shot the soldiers themselves.

Last week Amnesty produced a devastating report – "Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?" – based on meticulous and lengthy investigations, portraying Libya as a country where violent and predatory militia gangs have become the real power in the land. They jail, torture and kill individuals and persecute whole communities that oppose them now, did so in the past, or simply get in their way. A few actions by these out-of control militiamen have gained publicity, such as taking over Tripoli airport, shooting up the convoy of the British ambassador in Benghazi, and arresting staff members of the International Criminal Court.

But the widespread arbitrary detention and torture of people picked up at checkpoint by the thuwwar (revolutionaries) is not publicised because the Libyan government wants to play them down, or people are frightened of criticising the perpetrators and becoming targets.

Take the case of Hasna Shaeeb, a 31-year-old woman abducted from her Tripoli home last October by men in military dress and taken to the former Islamic Endowment Office in the capital. She was accused of being a pro-Gaddafi loyalist and a sniper. She was forced to sit in a chair with her hands handcuffed behind her back and was given electric shocks to her right leg, private parts, and head. Guards threatened to bring her mother to the cell and rape her, and urine was poured over her.

After she was freed from the chair, her torturers could not open her handcuffs with a key so they shot them off her, fragments of metal cutting into her flesh. On being released after three days, Ms Shaeeb had a doctor confirm her injuries and complained to the authorities about what had happened to her. They did nothing, but she received a threatening phone call from the militiaman who first arrested her and shots were fired at her house.

Ms Shaeeb's story is uncommon only in that she made an official complaint which many others are too frightened to do. They have reasons for their fear. The government estimates that it holds 3,000 detainees and the militias a further 4,000. The latter prisoners are almost invariably tortured to extract confessions. The Amnesty report says "common methods of torture reported to the organisation include suspension in contorted positions and prolonged beatings with various objects including metal bars and chains, electric cables, wooden sticks, plastic hoses, water pipes, rifle-butts; and electric shocks." Burning with cigarettes and hot metal is also used.

Diana Eltahawy, the Amnesty researcher who carried out many of the interviews on which the report is based, says that "things are not getting better" and, what makes things worse, is that in May the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) passed a law giving immunity to the "thuwwar" for any act they carry out in defence of the 17 February Revolution last year. The NTC has also decreed that interrogations by militias, though these very often involve torture, should carry legal weight. Ms Eltahawy says there is "a climate of self-censorship" within the post-Gaddafi government about abuses.

Not everybody survives mistreatment. Amnesty has detailed reports of 20 people tortured to death, the reason for their detention often obscure. For instance, on 10 May Hisham Saleh Fitouri, 28, a member of al-Awfiya militia, was arrested at a checkpoint after a confrontation with members of the Misrata militia. Two weeks later, his family located him in Misrata morgue where an autopsy report said that he had died of natural causes. But when his body was brought to Tripoli, a second examination showed he had deep bruises all over it and that he had died of renal failure and internal bleeding.

The militias have become used to meting out casual violence to anybody who annoys them. The middle-aged owner of a café on the beach in Tripoli complained about militiamen from Misrata firing their guns into the air in celebration. In retaliation, they beat him unconscious and destroyed his café with a rocket-propelled grenade. At the other end of the scale, there is the continuing persecution and violence against migrants from further south in Africa, as well as clashes between rival tribes and communities leaving hundreds dead.

Will a new government legitimised by the ballot box be able to rein in the militias and re-establish law and order? Or will Libya become like Lebanon during the civil war, when militias who had begun as defenders of their local community swiftly turned into gangsters running protection rackets? An advantage in Libya is that the population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim and there are not the same sectarian divisions as in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Libyan government, unlike the Lebanese, has substantial oil revenues and could buy off the militias or build the state security forces to the point where they can establish order.

It might happen. For all the black propaganda of the recent war, Libya does not have the tradition of ferocious violence of Iraq and Syria. Gaddafi may have had a demented personality cult and run a nasty police state, but he never killed people on the scale of Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad. The legacy of hatred is not quite so bad in Libya as in other countries where militias have established their rule.

The stranglehold of the militias in Libya has been established without the outside world paying much attention. Many Libyans still hope that the "thuwwar" are only flourishing in the interregnum between the Gaddafi regime and a democratically elected successor government. Some still see the militiamen as heroes of the revolution (and many did fight heroically), even though it was Nato that destroyed the old regime.

A difficulty for foreign governments and media alike is that, having rejoiced in the overthrow of Gaddafi last year, they do not want bad news to besmirch their victory. Ms Eltahawy says that part of the problem in getting people to pay attention to what is happening these days is that since the fall of Gaddafi "Libya is always portrayed as a success story".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A press image from the company  

If men are so obsessed by their genitals, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities of sex?

Chloë Hamilton
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory