TORTURE continues to be widespread in Libya’s detention centres, according to a United Nations (UN) report released today.
The report, ‘Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya,’ noted that 27 people have died in custody in the past two years, with physical abuse cited as the cause.
There are an estimated 8,000 conflict-related detainees who are also being held without due process.
The armed brigades, which emerged during the 2011 counter revolution against Gadaffi, freely admitted and even tried to justify the physical abuse of detainees.
Released jointly by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the report recorded 27 cases of death in custody since late 2011, where significant information suggests that torture was the cause of death.
Eleven deaths in custody detailed in the report took place in 2013 in detention centres that are under the nominal authority of the Government but, in effect, are run by armed brigades which emerged during the 2011 revolution.
The ‘Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya’ report said abuse of detainees persists despite the Government’s efforts.
‘Torture is illegal, under any circumstance, with no exceptions,’ said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay adding, ‘The situation of detainees in Libya is alarming and while there has been some progress, there is an urgent need to renew efforts to prevent torture, investigate allegations of torture and prosecute those responsible.’
The UN evidence suggests at least 10 deaths in custody this year have been due to torture and that no one has yet been held accountable.
It says there is evidence of continuing torture in both government institutions and prisons beyond government control, something humanitarian organisations working in Libya confirm.
Amnesty International researcher Magda Mughrabi said: ‘Right now, the only factor significantly bringing down the number of detainees being mistreated and tortured is the number of mass prison breaks that are taking place.’
Amnesty says it has found instances of detainees being beaten with hosepipes, set on fire and subjected to electric shocks.
Detainees also told the organisation they had received cuts to the genitals and were sprayed in the eyes with insect repellent.
According to the UN report torture is most frequent immediately after arrest and during the first days of interrogation to extract confessions and other information.
Detainees are usually held without access to lawyers and with only occasional, if any, access to families.
Since 2012, the Libyan regime has sought to bring armed brigades involved in detentions under the official authority of the State by affiliating them to specific ministries. But in many cases the armed brigades have retained actual control of the detention centres.
In April, Libya adopted a law criminalising torture, enforced disappearances and discrimination, providing for terms of imprisonment ranging from five years to life.
In September this year, it also adopted a new law on transitional justice which requires conflict-related detainees to be screened within 90 days.
The UN wants Libyan authorities and the armed brigades to accelerate the process of handing over detainees to the control of State authorities, and in the meantime take measures to protect detainees against torture or other ill-treatment.
The report further recommends that Libyan authorities adopt a strategy to screen and, where appropriate, release or charge and prosecute conflict-related detainees, in implementation of the Law on Transitional Justice.
The report is based on information gathered first-hand during UNSMIL’s visits to nearly 30 detention centres over two years, including information from detainees, family members, officials and civil society, as well as documentation such as medical reports.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya and head of UNSMIL, Tarek Mitri, said in accordance with Libya’s national priorities, all Libyans should unite to put an end to the abuse of detainees and contribute to establishing the rule of law in the country.
Thousands of people in Libya remain locked up in militia prisons, outside of state control, more than two years after Gadaffi was murdered.
Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Marghani, speaking after the report’s release, said: ‘We have a big problem. But it is a problem we are trying to tackle.’
The report estimates the number of conflict-related detainees is around 8,000, some held in facilities only ‘nominally’ under the authority of the justice or defence ministries, and the rest by ‘armed brigades not affiliated with the State in any form’.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said: ‘I remain deeply concerned at the slow and insufficient progress in the transfer of detainees from the custody of armed brigades to the State.’
Amnesty’s Mughrabi added: ‘We’ve visited prisons where the abuse is systematic.
‘Often militias come and go as they please, even in prisons that are supposed to be under government control.
‘They’re better armed than the judicial police and treat prisoners however they want.
‘In one detention facility, we even documented a case where a militia abducted a prisoner from within his jail cell,’ Amnesty has said.
In justification, Libyan Justice Minister Marghani said: ‘You can see the amount of weapons that are spread around. The amount of control you can have in this situation is limited.’
Marghani says many of the 10,000 former rebels who have been integrated into the judicial police have only had basic training.
‘We’ve got a good programme to train prison guards in place, including an in-house advisor from the UK here in the Justice Ministry. But our capacity is limited.’
The UN Support Mission in Libya, the UK and the European Union, are providing training to prison guards and the judiciary, but according to the World Organisation Against Torture (WOAT), the current level of assistance is not enough to initiate whole-scale transformation.
‘The number of officers that need training is enormous,’ said Karim Salem, project coordinator for WOAT. Without proper large-scale training, it’s impossible to change the culture in these institutions.’
Prison reform is only one of a number of initiatives currently on standby in Libya as the security situation worsens.
The regime’s congress is gridlocked on how to create the country’s constitution, and the UN Secretary-General’s report warns of a deterioration in the effectiveness of the country’s transitional government.
This has had an impact on the stability of the political process and has hindered the government in its ability to address the main problems facing the country.
Militias are also helping to derail the political process by staging armed protests when it comes to key congressional decisions. Members of Libya’s congress have complained of being forced to vote under duress.
The threat of violence also hangs over the country’s judiciary.
Prosecutors have repeatedly gone on strike this year in the southwestern city of Sabha due to intimidation by armed groups, a situation that has been exacerbated by repeated break-outs from the city’s prison.
The UN says safety of judicial personnel remains a ‘serious concern’ and its absence poses an obstacle to the establishment of a functioning judicial system. It cites several attacks on prosecutors and judges as well as bomb attacks on courthouses in Benghazi and Sirte.
The fragile security situation also means that Libya’s government is in a weak position when it comes to negotiating with large brigades, which continue to hold prisoners outside of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence.
One of the biggest armed groups holding prisoners beyond state control is the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a force parallel to the official army composed of the remnants of a number of brigades. It is funded and armed by the government and has two prisons at its Tripoli headquarters.
Attempts to force it to hand over detainees have resulted in repeated raids on the Justice Ministry and the intimidation of politicians.
‘The SSC shouldn’t have prisons,’ said Marghani. ‘We don’t consider these legitimate. They should hand over those people to the government so they can get real justice.’