FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Can Libya’s New Leaders Curb the Violent Militias?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

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”.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail