Rule of the gun: Abductions, torture and other abuses in western Libya

Amnesty International, 2014


“What is happening in Libya at the moment goes far beyond human rights violations. It is a quest

for revenge. People have stopped being human.”

Media worker on attacks against the media


Since the start of the conflict in western Libya on 13 July 2014 between the Libya Dawn [Fajr Libya] coalition of militias and their rivals predominantly from the town of Zintan and area of Warshafana located southwest of Tripoli, militias and armed groups on all sides have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL, the laws of war), some of which amount to war crimes.  


Militias on all sides have carried out tit for tat abductions. Many civilians, including civil society activists, lawyers, journalists and public figures have been threatened, abducted and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment solely on account of their origin, opinion or perceived political affiliation. Those who were eventually released have gone into hiding or sought refuge outside of Libya. Others are still looking desperately for ways to leave. Amnesty International was able to interview 15 individuals following their release. Their stories spoke of paralysing fear, humiliation and pain inflicted by prolonged beatings with plastic tubes, metal bars and sticks or electric shocks. Some refused to have their name or experience mentioned in this briefing for fear of reprisals against them, their families, their homes or other property. In some cases, abductions appear to be carried out in order to secure a prisoner exchange. This amounts to hostage taking.


All parties have also captured and detained fighters, raising concern for their safety and treatment. Amnesty International considers that all detainees held by militias are at grave risk of torture and other  ill-treatment and possibly summary killings. The organization’s concerns are heightened by a prevailing pattern of widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by these same militias with complete impunity since the 2011 armed conflict. During this time, successive governments have been unable to demobilize or disband these militias. Instead, they have provided them with monthly salaries and at times mandated them with carrying out various tasks such as providing security to strategic installations or areas. Three years of failure by the Libyan authorities to hold them accountable have emboldened militias and perpetuated their belief that they are above the law. Militias have continued to carry out arbitrary arrests, refused to hand over detainees into state custody, hindered the interim government’s transitional justice efforts, obstructed the releases of many individuals despite prosecution release orders, and perpetrated attacks against internally displaced persons as well as acts of torture and other ill-treatment.


Amnesty International calls on all parties to immediately cease the abduction of civilians and not to treat anyone in their custody as hostages. Anyone held solely on account of their political affiliation, opinion, place of origin or ethnicity must be immediately and unconditionally released. The organization further calls on all parties to treat captured fighters humanely in accordance with international humanitarian law, ensure that their families are notified of their whereabouts and are able to communicate with them, that they receive adequate medical care and are protected from torture and other ill-treatment. In particular, commanders must make it clear that torture and other ill-treatment will not be tolerated, and remove from their ranks any individuals suspected of having ordered, committed or acquiesced to such acts. A failure to do so may result in commanders being held accountable for acts committed by their subordinates.


When perpetrated during an armed conflict, torture and cruel treatment constitute war crimes, as does hostage-taking or the destruction or seizure of the property of an adversary – unless such destruction or seizure is imperatively demanded by the necessities of the conflict.8

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can still exercise its jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Libya since 15 February 2011 as per United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970. In light of the wide-spread abuses continuing to take place in Libya, Amnesty International welcomes the ICC Prosecutor's statement of 25 July 2014, in which Fatou Bensouda warned that her office “will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who commit crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction in Libya irrespective of their official status or affiliation”. 9 The organization also notes that the UN Security Council, in its Resolution 2174 of 2014, has reaffirmed that it will take punitive measures against individuals responsible for “planning, directing, or committing, acts that violate applicable international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or acts that constitute human rights abuses, in Libya”.10

Parties to the conflict in western Libya and International Humanitarian Law


The Libya Dawn coalition is made up of militias and armed groups from Misratah, Tripoli, Zawiya, Sabratha, Zuwara, Khoms, and several towns in the Nafusa Mountains, including Nalut, Jadu, Gharyan, Kikla and Qalaa. Libya Dawn’s main fighting forces include Libya Shield for the Western Region, Libya Shield for the Central Region, Misratah militias, Gharyan Shield and Tripoli-based militias such as Fursan Janzur Brigade, the Libya Revolutionaries Operation Room, militias from the Abu Salim district including the Joint Security Room (Axis11), the Nawasi Brigade and militias from the Mitiga airbase. Some of the militias affiliated with Libya Dawn are considered to be Islamist-leaning.


The Zintan-Warshafana coalition is mainly made-up of Zintan militias such as the Qaaqaa, Sawaiq, alMadani and Barq al-Nasser brigades, which have been accused of having integrated former al-Gaddafi officers; the Warshafana Brigade formed at the beginning of August 2014 and several small armed groups formed by members of the Warshafana community, reportedly as a response to the indiscriminate shelling of the area. For the last three years, some of these groups have engaged in criminal activities such as carjacking and theft, and are made up of perceived al-Gaddafi loyalists, but do not necessarily represent the position of the tribe. The Zintan-Warshafana coalition is allied with  Operation Dignity, the military campaign launched by retired General Khalifa Haftar in mid-May in Benghazi against Islamist militias and armed groups under the umbrella of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.


These groups are currently engaged in a non-international armed conflict in western Libya and are bound by rules of customary international humanitarian law and Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These rules and principles seek to protect anyone who is not actively participating in hostilities: notably civilians and anyone, including those who were previously participating in hostilities, who is wounded or surrenders or is otherwise captured. The deliberate and summary killing of people in captivity – be they civilians or suspected members of armed groups or militias – is prohibited and constitutes a war crime.


Torture and cruel treatment and hostage taking are prohibited and also constitute war crimes. IHL also limits the means and methods of conducting military operations. The principle of distinction requires

that parties to the conflict “distinguish between civilians and combatants” and between “civilian objects” and “military objectives” and direct attacks only at military targets. Indiscriminate attacks, which are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction, are prohibited. The principle of proportionality prohibits attacks, which “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. IHL also sets out the necessary precautions that should be taken to avoid carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. Making civilians the object of attack, intentionally launching an indiscriminate attack resulting in death or injury to civilians and launching a disproportionate attack constitute war crimes.


Excerpts from ‘Rule of the gun: Abductions, torture and other militia abuses in western Libya’

AI index: MDE 19/009/2014

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