One year into revolution, Libya is beset by uncontrolled militias, rights abuses

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2012 

CAIRO — Thousands of euphoric Libyans filled Tripoli's main square in September to hear Mustafa Abdul-Jalil's first speech since rebel forces chased Moammar Gadhafi from the Libyan capital.

Then the most visible opposition leader — and now Libya's de facto president — Abdul-Jalil seemed to embody the country's promise of democratic change. A former justice minister, he had defected early to the rebel cause and came with a reputation for dissent and honesty despite his role in the Gadhafi regime. If anyone could corral the competing factions in the aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster, surely he could, Libyans said at the time.

"We need unity, rejecting fear and envy with no retaliation or injustice," Abdul-Jalil proclaimed to cheers so thunderous they drowned out parts of his speech.

Six months later, however, fear, retaliation and injustice are hallmarks of the new Libya. Vigilante justice reigns, human rights abuses are rampant and loose weapons float around the country — and across the border into Egypt — with little hindrance, according to human rights groups and analysts who've monitored the country's transition.

It's been a year this week since Libya joined the Arab Spring uprisings, six months since the regime collapsed and four months since Gadhafi's execution by rebel captors. The reviews of Abdul-Jalil's fragile state are downbeat.

Rival militias, powerful tribes, well-organized Islamists and semi-autonomous cities such as Misrata openly defy his weak administration. Ordinary Libyans are fed up with the car thefts and the carousing of the militiamen they once hailed as heroic warriors, and they blame Abdul-Jalil for not standing up to the paramilitary commanders.

The interim government has failed to intervene in the forced displacement of some 30,000 people from Tawergha, a community of black Libyans adjacent to Misrata whom Misratans accuse of siding with Gadhafi during the fighting.

The Misratans razed and looted homes, torched shops and renamed the town New Misrata. Tawergha's former residents were forced into makeshift camps where aid groups have documented rapes; many men were tortured or killed in the cleansing. Yet "no action has been taken to hold the perpetrators accountable or to allow the displaced communities to return home," Amnesty International said in a scathing report this week.

Abdul-Jalil's sinking popularity became evident last month when protesters, reportedly demanding more transparency from their new leaders, stormed the headquarters of his National Transitional Council in the eastern city of Benghazi.

News photos of the incident showed a besieged Abdul-Jalil surrounded by protesters pointing angrily at him. He asked them for patience, news reports said, but people in the crowd hurled bottles and he was forced to flee out a back exit. It was an ignominious escape for a man who was the international face of Libya's NATO-backed revolution.

"He's a good person, kind, but not political enough and that was the problem," said Khalifa al Daghari, a science professor from Bayda who was among Abdul-Jalil's earliest advisers and is chairman of a new liberal party. "He lost control a long time ago. The Islamists and the Misratans won't let him do anything."

At the top of the laundry list of Abdul-Jalil's problems are the militias, which Amnesty International described in its report as "out of control." Human rights groups say the militias are guilty of torturing and killing prisoners in their custody, both Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans.

Bands of former rebels are holding some 8,000 detainees in about 60 detention centers, most of which are operated with little or no government oversight, according to Human Rights Watch.

Most courts aren't working, Human Rights Watch said in a report last month, and only a handful of detainees have appeared before a judge.

The vast majority of prisoners languish in holding cells where torture is so rampant that Doctors Without Borders last month stopped its treatment of prisoners in Misrata to protest severe injuries they said had been inflicted during interrogation sessions.

The foreign doctors reported to Misrata authorities 115 cases of torture-related wounds, the group said in a statement. But instead of seeing conditions improve, some of the previously injured patients showed up with fresh wounds, the group said.

"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," Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, fumed in a statement.

Aid groups have collected prisoner testimonies about being suspended in contorted positions and beaten for hours with whips, chains and other devices. Humanitarian workers also have documented several deaths from torture, most notably the killing of a former ambassador to France who had voluntarily appeared at the request of a militia.

Since September, at least 12 detainees held by militias have died after being tortured, according to the Amnesty International report. The deaths of 65 people whose battered, handcuffed bodies were found in a hotel in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte were likely "war crimes," Amnesty said, noting that it had obtained a video that showed 29 of the men were alive three days before in the custody of a Misrata militia. A voice can be heard saying, "Take them all and kill them."

The apparent mass execution didn't seem to concern Abdul-Jalil's administration.

"Not a single effective investigation is known to have been carried out into cases of torture, even in cases where detainees died after having been tortured at militia headquarters or in interrogation centers which are formally or informally recognized or linked to the central authorities," the Amnesty report said.

Abdul-Jalil, who will serve as interim leader until elections in June, has his defenders. They say that it's fairest to judge his stewardship not by the lack of accomplishments but by the worst-case scenarios that haven't materialized.

His interim government, though wobbly, has held together. The oil industry, the backbone of the economy, shows signs of recovery. And only in arms-flush Libya can the fact that a civil war hasn't erupted — at least not yet — be counted as an achievement.

"The Libyan transition is like navigating a small boat in a hurricane, and I think we need to credit Abdul-Jalil with having kept afloat," said Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo and a specialist in Libyan politics. "Sometimes simply not capsizing is the best thing you can do for your passengers while you wait out the worst of the storm."

Even his failure to disarm the militias can be seen as wisdom, said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who follows Libya for the Royal United Services Institute.

"If he had vigorously reined in the militias, and sparked off an early civil war, we'd have been arguing that he didn't learn the lessons of Iraq, tried to move too quickly, was foolish, etc.," Joshi said. "He had very few good choices, and no plausible replacement would have had a greater range of options."

The example of Libya hangs over the search for a solution to the bloody crisis in Syria.

Syrian opposition activists seek recognition of a rebel body like Abdul-Jalil's National Transitional Council to help spur their revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rebel calls for a Libya-style military intervention are growing louder as the uprising-turned-armed insurgency faces relentless attacks by Assad's regime.

Opponents of foreign intervention in Syria are worried about precisely what's transpired in Libya: An entrenched dynasty falls after months of vicious urban warfare, leaving a dangerous political vacuum in a country where moderates are little match for the better-organized Islamists who enjoy the patronage of oil-rich authoritarian Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Adding to the cautionary tale is how Abdul-Jalil's rebel council, eagerly endorsed by the United States and its European and Arab allies, proved an embarrassment, with public infighting, frequent lies or exaggerations and repeated failures to build consensus on pressing topics such as a new election law.

There's no doubt the Libyan experience was a factor in the Arab League's decision last week not to recognize the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Libya, however, became the first nation in the world to recognize the Syrian council as the "legitimate authority" — another move of Abdul-Jalil's that was criticized as hasty and ill planned.

"It was a mistake. We have to be prepared to secure our own country before heading into another war, and this was a declaration of war against Assad," said a Benghazi-based consultant to the interim defense ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities of Libyan politics.

"We've been supporting (Abdul-Jalil) for a long time now out of national necessity," the consultant added, "but now it's time for him to give space to someone else."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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