New Libyan Government Struggles To Restore Order

Libya's new authorities are working to restore order and incorporate the armed militias into the official police force.

al-monitor Graduates of the first batch of police march during Independence Day in Tripoli, Libya, on Jan. 1, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny.

Topics covered

libyan revolution, libyan militias

Jan 13, 2013

Libyan human rights activists have revealed the existence of prisons belonging to individual families and revolutionary brigades that are not subject to state control. This was confirmed by a spokesman for the attorney general in Libya, who expressed optimism regarding the success of the Ministry of Justice's efforts to address this issue quickly.

According to an official source at the Ministry of Justice — who spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he was not authorized to speak to the media — the Libyan government has suffered in their efforts to address this issue, which embarrassed Libyan officials as a result of its reverberations in the international community.

The same source explained that there is a draft plan that will last from two to six months and will lead to the ministry supervising most of the prisons in Libya. He refused to elaborate further on the draft.

Nasser al-Hawari, the head of the Libyan Observatory for Human Rights, said that some people do not want to raise this issue for fear that it would put Libya on the list of states facing international sanctions.

For her part, Amina al-Megheirbi — head of the Human Rights Committee within the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's interim parliament — said that the committee is following plans developed by the ministries of defense, interior and justice on the integration of the rebels into state institutions, and on supervising the rebels' prisons.

She described the work of the committee in this regard as "serious," adding that the committee was in the process of studying a bill received from the Ministry of Justice, that would be issued shortly by the GNC. The bill criminalized arrest and torture without official permission from the public prosecutor.

Hawari expressed his optimism that this law would deter arrest and torture, based on the fourth item in resolution No. 38 issued by the former National Transitional Council, which granted amnesty for any military or security measure "made necessary" by the revolution, until the end of the transitional period.

This problem remains for Libyan officials and those interested in human rights: The Ministry of Justice does not have statistics on the number of detainees in the prisons they supervise, nor on those being held in unofficial prisons, according to activist Mari Awami.

Megheirbi confirmed that these statistics are not available to the GNC's Human Rights Committee, noting that they had formed a committee that visited most of the prisons, and found cases of torture and unofficial arrests.

Unlike Megheirbi, human rights activists said that they have estimates regarding the number these prisons. Awami, the head of the Libyan Organization to Promote Freedom and Democracy, estimated that the city of Misrata alone contains dozens of prisons. 

He said it is impossible to determined the total number of detention centers in Libya, because of the vastness of the country, as well as the fact that some have refused to disclose what they have. Awami added that they have spoken with people who were arrested in places they did not even know existed.

In the same context, Hawari said, they were prevented from entering Misrata — to find out more about the conditions of the prison, their number, and the number of inmates — because they had spoken about the horrible manner in which Gadhafi and his son Mutassim were killed. He added that there are unofficial prisons, which are not necessarily in the hands of battalions. There are some families that have their own private prisons, as is the case in the city of Zawiya.

Regarding the extent and forms of torture, Awami said that there are nine registered cases. Three of these people died under torture, while the rest were abducted months ago and nothing is known about them until now.

He alluded to the fact that many of the revolutionary brigades follow Libya's Shield, a formation established by the army's general staff to gather rebel battalions under its umbrella. However, they do not know what's going on within the command centers of these battalions, nor do they oversee their prisons.

He added that some of these brigades — such as the February 17 Brigade in Benghazi — have refused activists access to their prisons. Moreover, some of these prisons are not fit for detention, such as the prison that occupies the headquarters of the Benghazi Tire Company.

Hawari revealed that most cases of torture occur in four cities — Misrata, Zliten, Zawiya and Tripoli — and, according to his documents, there have been seven cases of prisoners dying under torture, both in Misrata and Zilten.

Commenting on torture methods in these prisons, Hawari said that the reality is the opposite of what is rumored. Torture is used inside these prisons in a systematic and authorized manner to extract confessions. If the attorney general were to reinvestigate these cases, the majority of detainees would be found innocent. In fact, the attorney general did release two prisoners from the Ain Zara prison in Tripoli who had been detained for 15 months without being charged or investigated.

Hawari also noted that torture is an issue that also affects non-Libyan nationals. There are cases of prisoners who have been tortured in illegal prisons belonging to the immigration authorities, whose detainees are charged with illegally entering Libyan territory. He referenced the case of an Egyptian Christian man who was arrested by the Isnad Brigade in Benghazi, saying that he had seen traces of torture on the man's body with his own eyes. They then handed him over to the police, after threatening him not to tell anyone who had arrested him.

He said that he had tried to contact the victims' families, but they refused to provide any information out of fear for their own lives. Human-rights activists were also threatened with murder and kidnapping, according to Hawari.

Taha Baara, the spokesman for the attorney general in Libya, confirmed what the activists had said, noting that there are in fact secret prisons in Libya that he cannot enter. Thus, he cannot determine the number of such prisoners or the number of detainees in them.

Baara noted that the attorney general had received reports of torture that were presented to the coroner and documented in official records, and the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

Disarming and containing militias

Baara expressed optimism regarding the plans of Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani in this regard, saying that the justice minister had clarified that the prisons that are in the hands of rebels will soon be under the control of his ministry.

For his part, the new Libyan interior minister, Ashour Shuwail said that there are approximately 6,000 armed militia members that have begun training to incorporate them into the official police force, as part of a campaign to disarm the militias that are hindering the democratic transition process in Libya. Shuwail, a former law professor with a calm voice, has taken it upon himself to establish a legitimate and effective national police force starting late last year. This was after Libya's new prime minister, Ali Zaidan, appointed him to his post and entrusted him with confronting the toughest internal political challenges facing the country.

After the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011, the transitional authorities formed the Supreme Security Committee comprised on militiamen, which sought to confront those who challenged the security forces as a result of their belief that these forces were still under the control of those loyal to Gadhafi.

However, the Supreme Security Committee — which is funded by the Interior Ministry — became stronger and better armed than the official police forces. Moreover, some of its members were accused of abduction and terrorizing the people, which only increased the chaos afflicting Libya.

Shuwail said that nearly 6,000 militiamen and 10% of the Supreme Security Committee's members had agreed to join the official police force, after the start of a program to accept new affiliates at the end of last year.

He added that they had formed 37 police training committees, which operate under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, to deal with the new recruits.

Shuwail expressed his readiness to modify acceptance requirements to allow for the enrollment of recruits aged 40 to 45, or those who do not have high school diplomas, to accelerate the integration of the Supreme Security Committee into the national police and to make room for all those who wish to serve the nation. He said that those looking for security, those looking for stability, those looking for legitimacy, those looking for a job that contributes to building a civilized and secure state, should turn to the admissions committees, because loyalty should not be for a single person, but rather for God and the homeland.

Although several previous attempts to integrate militiamen into the police forces have failed, Shuwail stressed that the new plan was more effective because Libyans are fed up with armed forces in the streets. He said that this time will be different, the public is ready for the plan and Libyans are ready to rebuild their homeland and restore security.

He added that everyone has sons and daughters they are concerned for and their own personal interests, but these can only be achieved in a climate of stability provided through the presence of state institutions.

Shuwail was confident that more members of the Supreme Security Committee will choose to join the police, because incentives include fixed salaries and prepaid health care, which will help them to buy homes and raise families.

He added that more and more militiamen are submitting applications every day, without revealing exact figures. Shuwail also did not comment on the number of militiamen who are still refuse to join the security services, saying only that the solution lies in generating creative ideas to overcome this situation while avoiding confrontation.

The minister acknowledged that many of the militiamen still perceive the police one of the dictatorial institutions that Gadhafi controlled for over 42 years.

Shuwail said that there are some militiamen who have their own agendas — whether from inside or outside Libya — and their own personal problems. He noted that there are those who know that building a state could mean the possibility of their imprisonment.

He added that there are several ideas being discussed by a special government commission to deal with those who refuse to integrate into the police force. He said that the authorities would work with them to access their needs, and then try to meet them, pointing out that some consider government officials to be their enemies.

Shuwail was born in the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya in 1954, and trained as a police officer in Egypt in the 1970s, and then worked in the police force in Benghazi. In 2000, he received a doctoral degree from the University of Ain Shams in Cairo and then returned to Libya to study law at the University of Benghazi, where he was brought to the attention of Zidane. However, his path to the government was full of problems.

Shuwail, along with a number of other ministers, was accused of being one of the remnants of the Gadhafi regime. This resulted in protests that erupted in front of the GNC against his appointment.

Shuwail was referred to the High Commission for the Application of National Standards and Integrity, a body of legal experts formed by the Libyan National Transitional Council to study the backgrounds of government officials. The appeals court issued a ruling last month, clearing him of any relationship to the Gadhafi regime. 

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