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US-Backed Libyan Militias Accused of Widespread Torture: Reports

NATO intervention aimed to prevent 'human rights violations' ushered in rampant abuse

Common Dreams staff

An MSF physiotherapist works in one of Misrata's detention centers, where MSF is suspending operations due to evidence of systemic torture and abuse of detainees. (Libya 2011 © MSF)

Two separate reports this morning shine a troubling spotlight on torture - some resulting in death - being carried out 'by officially recognized military and security entities as well by a multitude of armed militias operating outside any legal framework' in post-Gaddafi Libya.

Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (widely known by their French acronym MSF) both report widespread evidence of abuse in several Libyan cities. The abuse MSF witnessed in Misrata was so bad the physician-led relief organization has closed its operations in the town.  As Agence France-Presse reported today:

[MSF] said its doctors were increasingly confronted with patients who suffered injuries caused by "torture" during questioning.

"The interrogations were held outside the detention centres," it said.

Its general director Christopher Stokes said some officials have sought to exploit and obstruct its work in Misrata.

"Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable," he said.

"Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions."

According to the Amnesty report:

Detainees, both Libyan and foreign nationals from sub-Saharan African countries, told Amnesty International they had been suspended in contorted positions, beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains and bars and wooden sticks, and given electric shocks with live wires and Taser-like electro-shock weapons.

The patterns of injury observed by the organization were consistent with their testimonies. Medical reports seen by Amnesty International also confirmed the use of torture on several detainees, a number of whom died in custody.

The majority of detainees being targeted are Libyans believed to have stayed loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi during the recent conflict. Foreign nationals, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, also continue to be randomly detained, including in connection with their irregular legal status, and some are tortured.

The organization found that detainees were usually tortured immediately after being held by local armed militias and subsequently under interrogations, including in officially recognized detention centres. To date detainees have not been allowed access to lawyers. Several told Amnesty International they had confessed to crimes they had not committed just to end the torture.

As Glenn Greenwald notes this morning, these are not the first reports of torture and abuse in post-Gaddafi Libya:

In July, Human Rights Watch accused NATO-backed rebels of widespread looting, arson and abuse of civilians. Throughout the latter part of 2011, there were numerous reports of black migrant workers being detained without charges, tortured and even executed en masse. In October, a U.N. report detailed widespread lawless detentions and torture; the same month, an Amnesty International report documented “a pattern of beatings and ill-treatment of captured al-Gaddafi soldiers, suspected loyalists and alleged mercenaries in western Libya. In some cases,” the report continued, “there is clear evidence of torture in order to extract confessions or as a punishment.” The incoming President of the U.N. Security Council, South African U.N. Ambassador Baso Sangqu, accused NATO of exceeding the scope of the U.N. Resolution on Libya and called for an investigation into human rights abuses by all sides, including NATO bombers and rebel forces.

More poignant, however, is what these reports of abuse say about the much touted "success" of the Libyan bombardment by NATO fighter jets that facilitated the overthrow of Gaddafi. As Greenwald explains:

Obviously, the Gadaffi and Saddam regimes were horrible human rights abusers. But the point is that one cannot celebrate a human rights success based merely on the invasion and overthrow of a bad regime; it is necessary to know what one has replaced them with. Ironically, those who are the loudest advocates for these wars and then prematurely celebrate the outcome (and themselves) bear significant responsibility for these subsequent abuses: by telling the world that the invasion was a success, it causes the aftermath — the most important part — to be neglected. There is nothing noble about invading and bombing a country into regime change if what one ushers in is mass instability along with tyranny and abuse by a different regime: typically one that is much more sympathetic to the invading regime-changers.

That last point underscores the other key lesson from these types of invasions. They are almost always sold by appeal to human rights concerns — Iraqi babies pulled from incubators and Saddam’s rape rooms — but that is very rarely their actual objective. When the West invokes human rights concerns to justify an attack on a dictator whom it has long tolerated (and often even supported), that is rather compelling evidence that human rights is the packaging for the war, not the goal. The fact that it is not the goal means more than just another war sold deceitfully based on pretexts: it means that human rights concerns will not drive what happens after the invasion is completed. The materials interests of the invaders are highly likely to be served, but not the human rights of the people of the invaded country. It is still early in the post-Gaddafi age, but those who supported the war in Libya — which (like the war in Iraq) included numerous people who did so out of a genuine, well-intentioned desire to see a vile tyrant vanquished — have a particular responsibility to ensure that the same tyranny is not replicated by the forces supported by the invading armies.


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