As Libya marks the first anniversary of its revolution on Friday, the dozens of well-armed militia groups operating across the vast country have slipped well out of the control of the nascent government in Tripoli, making the country ever more fractured as well as dangerous to ordinary Libyans attempting to adjust to the end of Muammar Gaddafi‘s 41-year dictatorship.
That assessment came on Thursday from Amnesty International, whose latest research on the country documents at least 12 Libyans who have died in militia custody since September, allegedly after being beaten, suspended upside down and given electric shocks. In a chilling 38-page report published on the eve of the anniversary, Amnesty describes a wave of terror and widespread abuse by militia groups, whose members in recent months have dragged hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Libyans from their homes or from roadside checkpoints into makeshift jails on suspicion of being Gaddafi sympathizers or having fought alongside the regime’s forces during the civil war. (PHOTOS: Libya’s New Regime: The Fight for Gaddafi’s Hometown)
Libya should be celebrating on the anniversary of the revolution, which saw scrappy fighters crush one of the world’s longest-serving regimes in just eight months after drawing NATO allies into the sole Western military intervention of the Arab Spring. The revolution erupted Feb. 17, 2011, when hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi stormed into the streets demanding the end of Gaddafi’s rule — an extraordinarily brave act at the time. The demonstrations spread rapidly, engulfing eastern Libya within weeks, then catapulting the country into all-out civil war once NATO began its bombing campaign in mid-March. The revolution ended in the stunning collapse of the dictatorship in August.
But this Feb. 17 is likely to be a far less joyous milestone. Last week, Gaddafi’s son Saadi announced from his exile in neighboring Niger that a pro-Gaddafi insurgency was readying itself for battle across Libya. And militia groups, many of which led the rebel forces during the war, have now settled into semipermanent power arrangements in areas across the country, with no signs of disarming. The National Transitional Council (NTC), the administration in Tripoli, has set several deadlines for the groups to give up their weapons and join a national army, all of which have gone unheeded. Instead, says the Amnesty report, the groups operate independent of authorities in Tripoli — including inside the capital itself — with little fear of prosecution. “After the great wave of hysteria last year of mass detentions, there is now a more pernicious hunting down of people,” Donatella Rovera, senior crisis-response adviser for Amnesty in London, tells TIME. (VIDEO: Libya to Citizens: Give Up Your Guns)
Over the past two months, Rovera visited numerous detention facilities controlled by militia groups, interviewing detainees in Arabic, alone in closed rooms. She says that since she was often given little time to talk to them, detainees ripped off their shirts the moment the door was closed, eager to show her bruises and cuts from interrogations. After presenting the evidence to NTC officials in Tripoli, she says she came to believe that the council lacked both the willingness and the capability to wrest control from armed groups — perhaps because the task could require a major confrontation at a time when officials are attempting to stabilize the battered economy and prepare the country for June elections. Rovera believes the delay has only worsened the situation. “The lack of political will has contributed to making the militias more and more powerful, and more and more difficult to control,” she says.
The report outlines the grim detentions in fairly close detail, adding to mounting evidence of abuse. In December, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had visited about 8,500 prisoners in 60 detention facilities over the previous year. And in late January, Doctors Without Borders shut its clinic in Misratah after its staff treated 14 torture victims who had been taken to an interrogation center nearby. The group said the militia in charge of the prison refused to allow 13 of the prisoners to be given further medical treatment and then took them back to the interrogation center. (PHOTOS: Libya Celebrates Liberation)
The most chilling details in Amnesty’s new report involve those whose detentions ended in death. One of those was Fakhri al-Hudairi al-Amari, a police officer from the Tripoli suburb of Tajura. Al-Amari, a 31-year-old with two children, was hauled from his home with his four brothers by a group of armed men last October, days before Gaddafi was killed in Sirt. The brothers were detained in Tajura, and all except al-Amari were soon released. More than a month after al-Amari’s arrest, the staff at Tripoli’s Abu Salim Hospital phoned family members to say he had been admitted with severe injuries; he died later that day. The hospital’s postmortem exam found two missing fingernails, marks from electric shocks, burn marks on his forehead, arm and wrist, and bruises across his body.
Despite several such cases, Amnesty says no prosecutions have taken place and high-profile reports of killings — including, for example, the deaths of some 65 apparent Gaddafi supporters in Sirt immediately after Gaddafi’s death — have not resulted in any arrests. In several places, Amnesty was told that investigations were being done by ad hoc “judicial committees,” whose members told the organization “that they had to take on the task of prosecutors because the judicial system was not working.” (READ: Libya’s Army Tries to Reassert Itself as Militias Have Their Way)
That raises the question about how Libya’s most high-profile detainee — Gaddafi’s powerful son Saif al-Islam — may be tried. Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Saif for crimes against humanity, Libyan officials say they do not intend to transfer him to the Hague, where the ICC is based. Under the rules of the ICC, Libya would need to petition the court to try Saif inside Libya by arguing that the country is capable of giving him a fair, thorough trial. On Jan. 23, Libya’s new Justice Minister, Ali Humaida Ashour, told reporters that Saif would be “held in Libya under Libyan law,” prompting the ICC to issue a statement saying that no decision had yet been made about where the country’s most famous prisoner would ultimately be tried.