AFRICANGLOBE – The Libyan government should take urgent steps to stop serious and ongoing human rights violations against inhabitants of the town of Tawergha, who are widely viewed as having supported Muammar Gaddafi. The forced displacement of roughly 40,000 people, arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings are widespread, systematic, and sufficiently organized to be crimes against humanity and should be condemned by the United Nations Security Council.
Newly released satellite imagery analysis shows the systematic destruction of large swaths of the town by arson and targeted demolitions after the fighting there had stopped in mid-2011, in an apparent attempt to prevent Tawerghans from returning home.
“Successive governments in Tripoli and local authorities in Misrata have failed to stop the ongoing persecution of an entire community and the destruction of the town,” said Fred Abrahams, special advisor at Human Rights Watch. “This leaves a dark stain on the reputation of a new Libya that claims to respect human rights.”
Armed groups from Misrata, about 30 kilometers north, have been responsible for most of the abuses. These groups accuse Tawerghans of having fought with or supported pro-Gaddafi forces during the 2011 conflict, and of committing war crimes in Misrata. The Libyan government and Misrata authorities have been unable to rein in these abusive armed groups.
Militia commanders and senior officials in Misrata could be held criminally responsible by domestic and international courts, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, for ordering these crimes, or for failing to prevent them or to punish the attackers, Human Rights Watch said.
In her last report to the UN Security Council in November 2012, the ICC chief prosecutor said her office was continuing to collect information about allegations of “killings, looting, property destruction, and forced displacement by Misrata militias” of Tawerghans to determine whether a new case should address these allegations.
Foreign governments that intervened militarily in Libya under a UN Security Council resolution to protect civilians forcefully condemned violations by the Gaddafi government but have failed to challenge effectively the ongoing abuses against Tawerghans and others, Human Rights Watch said. The double standard in addressing these crimes depending on who committed them erodes the credibility of governments that said they intervened to protect civilians.
Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to condemn crimes against humanity against Tawerghans and to request the Libyan government to report back in three months on how it is fulfilling its responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities. The Security Council should also impose sanctions against officials and militia commanders who ordered or failed to prevent these crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 families from Tawergha, who gave detailed information about 17 people from the town who they say were captured and killed. They also showed photographs of bodies of those killed.
Thirteen of these victims were civilians killed after they had fled Tawergha in mid-August 2011, the families said. One was a civilian killed in detention in Misrata and one was a civilian captured and killed during the 2011 fighting, family members said. The remaining two were apparently killed in Sirte, during the fighting as Gaddafi was captured in October 2011 in unclear circumstances.
Tawergha leaders in Tripoli told Human Rights Watch that the number of Tawerghans who were captured and killed by militias after the conflict was much higher. They said the precise numbers are unknown because the community is displaced across Libya and the leaders lack full lists of those detained and killed.
Human Rights Watch interviewed two relatives of Milad al-Buma, 33, who said a militia from Misrata had detained al-Buma and his cousin Hussein Ihneish, 25, near Tripoli on August 28, 2011, a week after the family had fled Tawergha. The two men were taken to Misrata and never heard from again, the relatives said. In early 2013 the family obtained a photograph of al-Buma’s dead body.
In a separate interview, two relatives of Ihneish gave the same details about his abduction and showed a photograph of his dead body that they said they obtained in late 2012. Neither family had received a death certificate or information about the place of burial.
Many Tawerghans currently detained have been held for more than one year without charges, a judicial review, or access to a lawyer. The same is true of most of the roughly 8,000 detainees held by the Libyan government or militias. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the use of torture against Tawerghan detainees, sometimes causing death.
Human Rights Watch also conducted new satellite imagery analysis based on five images taken between 2011 and 2012, allowing an analysis of destruction in Tawergha after the fighting there had stopped in mid-August 2011. The analysis identified 1,690 damaged or destroyed structures after the cessation of hostilities, more than 90 percent of which appear damaged by fire. The total number of destroyed structures is certainly higher, Human Rights Watch said.
The imagery and Human Rights Watch’s repeated observations in 2011 of looted and burned buildings in Tawergha strongly suggest that the widespread and systematic destruction was intended to prevent residents from returning.
“The satellite images corroborate what we saw on the ground: the vast destruction of a town,” Abrahams said. “The systematic looting, burning, and demolitions were organized and seem intended to keep people from going home.”
A functioning justice system is needed to address crimes by all sides before, during, and after the 2011 conflict, Human Rights Watch said. Laws on transitional justice would help identify and punish people who committed crimes and promote reconciliation between communities and tribes.
The central government has formed a committee to work on the return of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Gaddafi supporters who fled abroad, but the details of its work remain unclear. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that, as of January 2013, Libya had just under 60,000 internally displaced persons, half of them from Tawergha.