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

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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".

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