Libya: torture and killings of civilians by law enforcement ‘endemic’

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were among those tortured and killed by law enforcement agents and militias, mainly in Libya’s detention centres. (Keystone/AP)

Libyan law enforcement agents and militias killed at least 581 civilians between January 2020 and March 2022 as organisations warn extrajudicial killings and torture have become “endemic” in the country.

Extrajudicial killings and torture of civilians in Libya has become “endemic”, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) has warned, following reports that at least 581 people were killed by law enforcement agents and militias between January 2020 and March 2022, with the real number thought to be much higher.

The number includes both Libyan nationals and migrants, many of whom were tortured to death or executed in detention facilities, according to a new report by the OMCT and the Libyan Anti-Torture Network (LAN). However, the organisation warned that the true number of those killed and tortured was likely to be much higher due to the difficulty of documenting cases.

“The cases we have been able to document represent only the tip of the iceberg”, said Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the OMCT. “Extrajudicial killings of defenceless civilians, often accompanied by horrific torture, are now endemic in Libya, as government agents and armed militias unleash indiscriminate violence with total impunity. The world cannot remain complacent and allow such egregious crimes to become the new normal.”

‘The tip of the iceberg’

The two-year investigation carried out by the LAN, a group of civil society organisations, collected hundreds of testimonies from witnesses and survivors carried out across Libya.

Witnesses included survivors of atrocities, family members and, in some cases, guards of members of security forces. The OMCT said gathering testimonies was extremely challenging due to the lack of documentaries on the ground and witnesses fears they might be targeted for speaking out.

“The documenters on the ground in Libya are so few and people are so scared,” Sahar Ben Hazem from the OMCT told Geneva Solutions.

“It's difficult for them to go and talk about the violations that they have been subjected to or the members of their families who have been killed or forcibly disappeared. So this is only the tip of the iceberg. And it's so concerning to see the impunity and how the authorities in Libya just turn a blind eye to it, and even sometimes how they are participants to it.”

The majority of documented cases – 487 out of 581 – were Libyan civilians, while 83 victims were migrants, asylum seekers or refugees of various nationalities including Nigerians, Sudanese and Syrians. There were also 11 documented cases of bodies found in mass graves in Tarhouna, where scores of bodies were dumped in April 2019.

The OMCT said gathering testimonies from migrants was especially difficult due to their fear of speaking out, with systematic abuse and mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers commonplace in Libya in recent years.

“Migrants already don't trust Libyans and all the documenters are Libyans, so it's more difficult for them to go and talk about the violations that they have been subjected to,” said Ben Hazem.

“Migrants are so vulnerable when they come to Libya they are at the mercy of the traffickers and the smugglers and the guards. For them, it's practically impossible to talk because they fear retaliation, especially when they are in detention centres, both official and unofficial.”

Country in turmoil

The OMCT said the situation facing Libyan civilians and migrants was getting worse due to the “impunity” with which abuses are being carried out by both government officials, armed groups and militias in the conflict-ridden country.

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in October 2011, Libya has descended into a state of lawlessness, with two rival governments and scores of armed militias whose members torture, ransom and kill with impunity.

A UN report released earlier this year warned that civilians are reportedly detained for expressing opposition to the political factions, with attacks on civil society organisations, activists, human rights defenders and journalists rife.

Libya has also become a dominant transit point in recent years for people fleeing conflict and persecution across Africa and the Middle East, sharing a lengthy border with six other nations.

Human traffickers and people smugglers have benefited from Libya’s internal chaos, smuggling migrants across the desert country to the coastline where they are often packed into ill-equipped boats which are generally unseaworthy, overcrowded and unprepared for the risky voyage across the mediterranean.

Read also: UN cites possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in June that at least 150 migrants departing from Libya died in the first sixth months of 2022. An additional 565 were missing.

Many of the boats are intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by the European Union-funded Libyan coastguard, which defies UN regulation. Migrants – including women and children – are then often held in detention centres where the UN has warned of “endemic human rights abuses”.

Some documented cases of migrants who survived sinking boats reported being brought back to Libya more than five times and being taken into custody. Some migrants died under torture or due to neglect and ill-treatment in detention centres, where there have been widespread reports of systematic abuse including torture, rape and extortion, according to rights groups.

The exact leadership of these detention centres is unclear, with local and international organisations barred access. Some are controlled by the government while others are under the leadership of armed groups, who have long taken control of people smuggling in Libya’s western region.

‘Total impunity’

Ben Hazem said it is often unclear who was carrying out the abuses, both in detention centres and elsewhere, and the extent to which the two sides were colluding with each other.

“Perpetrators are both state and non-state actors and most of the time they are in a grey area where we don't know exactly if they are state or non-state, and that's one of the biggest issues in Libya at the moment,” she said. “There are militias and armed groups that we're not clear if they are under the state or paid by the state.”

She said the deep divisions in Libya made it extremely difficult to hold anyone accountable for the violations.

“The power struggle between all these actors makes the situation even harder and the work on human rights violations even more essential, because in the absence of any rule of law human rights violations have become endemic,” said Ben Hazem.

The OMCT report called on the Libyan state to take responsibility for bringing an end to the torture and killings, and to investigate any suspected cases.

Ben Hazem also raised concerns over the upcoming conclusion of the UN’s probe into human rights violations in Libya, with the fact finding mission’s (FFM) mandate due to expire in March. She said it was essential another mechanism was put in place to monitor the situation and continue to document cases.

“It's unbelievable that there will be no more monitoring or documenting whatsoever of the cases and human rights violations in Libya after the end of the FFM mandate, because the judiciary in Libya is broken down,” she said. “It is essential to still have some kind of mechanism to keep an eye on things in Libya, to keep monitoring the situation and to keep documenting cases.”