Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Libya: 6 Months On, Scant Action On Protester Killings - Failures in Police Protection, Lack of Accountability of Militias

press release

Tripoli — Libyan authorities should urgently announce the results of promised investigations into at least two deadly clashes between protesters and militias during 2013. The clashes killed dozens of people and injured hundreds.

Six months after 32 people died in Benghazi on June 8, 2013, in what came to be known as "Black Saturday," the authorities have made no known arrests, have been silent on the identities of any suspects, and seem unwilling to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation, Human Rights Watch said. In the second clash, on November 15 in Tripoli, at least 46 people died and 500 were injured.

"The authorities urgently need to work out a feasible plan to question witnesses and militia members in connection with these deadly attacks on protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It's bad enough the authorities seem to be powerless to defend Libyan citizens, but they need to make greater efforts to investigate the deaths of dozens of people."

On June 8, demonstrators gathered in Benghazi in front of the headquarters of a militia, the Libya Shield Forces 1, demanding that its members clear out of the city. Militia members fired on the protesters, and the resulting exchange of fire, including heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weapons, killed 32 people and injured dozens. Members of the army special forces, al-Sa'iqa, were present and, according to witnesses, participated in the exchange of fire, but the government has yet to clarify their role in the incident.

On June 9, Libya's General National Congress (GNC) called on the general prosecutor, Abdelqader Radwan, to investigate the Benghazi incident and bring those responsible to justice. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on December 5, Alaejeili Teitesh, the head of the General Prosecutor's Office, said the investigation is "ongoing," but provided no concrete details. Six months after the killings, there is no indication that the authorities have identified, interrogated, or detained any suspects in connection with the killings.

The government has also apparently been slow to investigate the large-scale attack on protesters in Tripoli on November 15. Militias, mainly from the city of Misrata, fired heavy weapons at what appeared to be a largely peaceful protest. The ensuing clashes resulted in the killing of at least 46 people and wounding of 500. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police and military police were present, accompanying the organized demonstration, yet failed to intervene.

Almost three weeks later, Teitesh told Human Rights Watch that, based on a general prosecutor's decision [No. 265/2013], a seven-member prosecution committee, headed by Tripoli Appeals Court Attorney General Omar Zinbeel, had opened an investigation into 47 deaths.

He said the committee was analyzing videos obtained from monitoring cameras adjacent to the where clashes took place and planned to issue arrest warrants "no matter who the perpetrators are," after it finished collecting evidence and statements from witnesses. In addition, according to media reports, it appears that a militia unit in Tripoli is detaining at least one suspect, Abdelmajid al-Drat, a member of a Misrata militia based in Gharghour, in connection with the incident. But there is no indication that the Libyan authorities have interrogated or officially detained any other suspects.

According to media reports, other militia commanders and militia members who were involved in the attacks left Tripoli after the events and returned to Misrata. There is no confirmation of how many people Misrata militias detained during the clashes, or their whereabouts."Militias have been able to defy the government and enjoy de-facto immunity from prosecution for two years now," Whitson said, "Libya's future stability is at risk unless there is a concerted effort by the Libyan authorities to change that and start indicting wrongdoers."

For background on the militias, the security forces' role, and the security issues involved, please see below.

Role of Security Forces

The government has given no indication that it is investigating the failure of Libyan security forces to protect protesters even though the security forces were present at both protests.

In the June 2013 clashes in Benghazi, the Army Special Forces were present during the clashes, according to witnesses, and allegedly only intervened after numerous casualties.

In last month's clashes in Tripoli, units of both the civil and the military police were present during the demonstration and remained in the vicinity once clashes broke out. But they failed to intervene to protect protesters or to arrest people firing at seemingly unarmed citizens at the beginning of the demonstrations, before clashes broke out. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said the security forces were powerless to confront the militias during the Tripoli attacks, and that the militias had out-powered the security forces.

The government deployed the police and army to the streets of Tripoli only days after the November 15 killings in an effort to re-establish security, though only after the militias that had occupied Tripoli neighborhoods and military bases began to leave the city.

The government's human rights responsibilities include the duty to secure the rights to life and to security of all people within its territory or jurisdiction. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect people from identifiable or predictable threats to their lives.

The Militia Problem

Hundreds of militias with varying regional, ideological, religious, political, and economic agendas have continued to operate with impunity since the end of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. They have killed, tortured, harassed, and arbitrarily detained hundreds of Libyans without any known prosecutions against any member of a militia.

Successive interim authorities have been either unable or unwilling to curb militia abuses or to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes. Despite repeated promises, the authorities have also failed to disband militias and integrate sufficient numbers of militiamen deemed eligible after individual vetting under government authority into the official security forces. Contrary to their stated commitments, interim authorities have contracted with and paid militias to operate as paramilitary forces parallel to the government, including them in operations reserved for state security forces under Libyan law, such as arrests and detention.

A GNC decree authorized the "Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room," a coalition of powerful militias, to protect Tripoli. However, this coalition includes militias previously implicated in attacks on protesters.

The GNC has issued numerous decrees aimed at disbanding the country's militias, but the government has been slow to carry them out. On November 12, the GNC issued Decree 87/2013, calling on the head of the government to carry out two previous decrees (27/2013 and 53/2013) that called on the government to clear "illegitimate" armed formations from cities and merge all armed formations that have gained legitimacy into state security forces.

Decree 27/2013 authorized the government to use all necessary means, including military force, to clear Tripoli of "illegitimate" armed groups. It also ordered armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Defense and Interior Ministries to leave the city boundaries and move to specific locations in the outskirts.

The GNC issued Decree 53/ 2013 on June 9, in the wake of the Benghazi killings. The decree calls on the head of the government to "clear" all areas in Libya of illegitimate armed formations using all necessary means, including military power. It also orders the head of government to produce a plan to merge all members of armed formations with "legitimacy" into state security forces individually, rather than by militia group, and to issue them official army serial numbers. The deadline for carrying out this decree is December 31.

After the November 12 clashes, the GNC reiterated its call for implementation of Decrees 27 and 53 by December 31. Libya's current Minister of Electricity, Ali Muheirig, is tasked with the implementation of these Decrees.

On December 3, Prime Minister Zeidan announced the formation of another committee made up of several ministers including former Interior Minister Ashour Shwail, and headed by Higher Education Minister Mohamed Abu-Bakr, to work on carrying out Decree 53 in the city of Benghazi.

None of these decrees propose a mechanism for the handover of weapons by militias or mention accountability for militia crimes. Nor do they foresee a mechanism to handover detainees held by militias to the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Libyan authorities should at least start issuing arrest warrants for militia members suspected of crimes and for their commanders, to put them on notice that the authorities will no longer tolerate impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The non-existent prosecution in the last two years now stands in the way of Libya's bid to embrace the rule of law.

Libya's international partners, including countries that participated in the NATO campaign in 2011 against pro-Gaddafi forces, have done little to follow through with a coordinated restructuring policy, based on basic protection of human rights and ending of international crimes.

The United Nations Security Council has remained largely apathetic about militia abuses, including crimes against humanity, despite Libya's obligations to "prevent and investigate violations and abuses of human rights" as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2095, adopted on March 14.

Some countries, including the US, UK, France, Italy, and Turkey, have announced their readiness to train militia members for a future "General Purpose Force." But they have yet to establish screening procedures to ensure that militia members who are trained for this force have not committed serious crimes, including unlawful killings and torture. Despite some support to Libya's institutions, Libya's allies did little to support Libya in setting up a functioning justice system, including independent prosecutors and judges that have the capacity to arrest and try the most serious perpetrators.

The International Criminal Court has ongoing jurisdiction over crimes against humanity committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, taking into account, among other factors, whether the Libyan authorities are willing and able to prosecute those responsible for these crimes.

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