By Diana Eltahawy, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Diana Eltahawy is the Libya researcher for Amnesty International. The views expressed are her own.
Moves to reduce the deadly power of out-of-control militia groups in Libya could not come a day too soon. Since the ousting of Moammar Gadhafi, these groups have remained powerful and have threatened to undermine any hope the country has for a future that respects the rule of law and human rights.
As a distraught woman told me after her husband disappeared from their Tripoli home in the middle of the night on August 27, never to be seen since:
“I don’t know who the armed men were. They didn’t identify themselves or present an arrest warrant. Some were wearing army fatigues; others had donned military trousers and regular T-Shirts. One of them was wearing sandals, shorts, and a Mickey Mouse T-Shirt. They jumped over the fence, and took my husband away without any explanation. We haven’t heard about him since”.
Unfortunately, her plight is not unique. Indeed, I hear daily complaints from Libyans all over the country about abuses by armed militias. They lament their relatives being abducted from their homes, checkpoints or at work.
The lucky ones eventually find their husbands, sons or brothers in Libya’s numerous prisons or detention centers – some officially overseen by relevant ministries, others directly in the hands of armed militias. But other families find their loved-ones in the morgue, with visible bruises covering their bodies. Many are still searching for their missing relatives.
Yesterday, I received a desperate call from another Libyan family. Two armed militias from the city of Misratah took over their villas in Tripoli in August 2011. The pretext was that this “loyalist” family hails from Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte.
Despite complaints being lodged with a local police station months ago, the militias refuse to leave. This week, a man who refused to identify himself called the family asking for 90,000 dinars in return for vacating the premises. He threatened to blow up the villas if the payment is not received. The family does not know where to turn for help.
Individuals belonging to families or tribes deemed to have supported or fought for Gadhafi’s government are particularly vulnerable and are largely targeted due to their identity, rather than individual crimes they are alleged to have committed. Of the thousands of people detained in Libya today, the vast majority have yet to face any official charges, or be brought to trial.
Hundreds of militias were formed at the local level during last year’s uprising against the Gadhafi government. Many have established their own command structures, accumulated caches of weapons and consolidated control over entire neighborhoods or areas. Upon the end of hostilities, many refused to disarm or join the national army or police force. The government has been unable, and in some instances unwilling, to rein them in. In some cases, it relied on them to fill the security vacuum left by the collapsed state.
Efforts to integrate some militias into national institutions have not been accompanied by a vetting system to weed out those responsible for human rights violations such as torture, leading to the repetition of similar abuses.
An official admitted to Amnesty International that a militia only agreed to hand over a major Tripoli prison to the Ministry of Justice on condition that its members continue to work as guards and administrators at the prison. Not surprisingly, abuses against detainees continue. A man died there last week after being severely beaten.
The tragic death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 following attacks on the American Consulate served as a wake-up call for the international community and Libya’s leadership to confront armed militiamen.
For more than a year – since before the fall of Tripoli in August 2011 – Amnesty International has been calling on the Libyan authorities to rein in armed militias or risk lawlessness and widespread human rights abuses.
The organization’s warnings that armed militias were responsible for arbitrary arrest and detention; torture including to death; forcible displacement and unlawful killings were largely ignored.
Officials promised to investigate abuses and reiterated their commitments to respect human rights and establish the rule of law.
However, they failed to take effective and concrete steps to put an end to abuses, or bring those responsible to justice. In fact, many officials downplayed the gravity and scale of human rights violations; and refused to condemn them publicly. Now Libya’s political leadership has called on armed militias to disband – it must take concrete steps to make that a reality before another tragedy strikes.