(January – March 2021)- Paris – 26 April 2021
During the period from January to March 2021, Libya witnessed no positive developments in terms of respecting and promoting human rights. The formation of the new government, as a result of the discussions of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, did not affect the patterns of violations committed against civil associations, human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the continued disclosure of mass graves in Tarhuna indicates that impunity has spread over the past years. In Libya, perpetrators are encouraged to commit numerous atrocities because they remained free from accountability before the local or international courts. This is in addition to the lack of political will, throughout the past decade, to impose the rule of law and put an end to the violations of various armed groups.
Libyans are concerned about the new government’s seriousness regarding the implementation of its obligations to hold presidential and parliamentary elections next December. This concern is the result of bitter experience with previous transitional governments, especially with regard to handing over power. There are attempts from those responsible for this investigation to obscure the results of the investigation into allegations of political bribery during the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. This is indeed a new type of guardianship and patronizing of the Libyan people.
Results of the investigation into political bribes
On November 22, 2020, in the midst of the work of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, The Defender Center for Human Rights (CHRDA) and 11 other Libyan human rights organizations sent an open letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Acting Libyan Attorney General, to demand the disclosure of the results of the investigation, announced by the United Nations Support Mission, regarding the allegations of financial and political bribery in The Forum for Political Dialogue, and asked to name and shame the members of the dialogue involved in incidents of corruption and exclude them from upcoming forum sessions and from Libya’s self-determination process. In the second quarterly report issued in January 2021, CHRDA reiterated these demands and announced its aspiration for Ján Kubiš, the UN envoy and the then-new head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, to announce the results of the investigation as soon as possible.
However, the mission did not make any comments on the allegations and the mechanisms of the investigation that Stephanie Williams, the former Secretary-General’s representative, announced at her press conference following the first round of the political dialogue. On February 5, 2021, the results of the voting process for the Presidential Council and Prime Minister’s candidate lists were announced. Prior to the House of Representatives session, to vote in confidence in the government formed by the new Prime Minister there were frequent leaks claiming that the appendix to the report from the Panel of Experts on Libya, which submits its report to the UN Security Council, contains detailed information on buying the votes of some participants in the political dialogue forum. The mission issued a statement denying its connection with the team and its investigation, without reference to the investigation that the former head of the mission promised to conduct in this regard.
On March 8, 2021, the Panel of Experts on Libya issued its report to the President of the Security Council pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), document (S / 2021/229). The report did not reveal the results of the investigation into allegations of political bribery, and the English version of the report contained Appendix No. 13, titled (Bribery Attempts at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum). The contents of the appendix were withheld, and the team of experts was satisfied with one phrase in English and in red: “The appendix is confidential. Not for public release.” While press leaks confirmed that the “secret attachment” includes confirmation of the occurrence of bribery attempts within the forum.
In this context, the CHRDA denounces the United Nations Support Mission in Libya’s neglect of the demands of the above-mentioned Libyan human rights organizations, and its disavowal of its role in investigating the allegations of the use of political money in the dialogue forum that it sponsored, as well as its disavowal of implementing the promise of the former head of the mission to investigate the matter. CHRDA also denounces the experts’ group withholding the contents of Appendix 13, concealing facts from the Libyan people and global public opinion. CHRDA also considers that this a display of patronising Libyans and preventing them from knowing the facts relating to the integrity and transparency of the process of “choosing” who governs the country at this critical stage. CHRDA stresses the need to disclose facts and information withheld from the general Libyan population.
On the other hand, CHRDA calls on the current interim government of the country to abide by the elections scheduled to be held on December 24th, 2021, and to provide the necessary guarantees that the elections will be fair and transparent, and under the supervision and control of the Libyan and international civil society. CHRDA also calls on the House of Representatives to draft election laws as soon as possible, in consultation with Libyan human rights organizations, so that delaying the drafting of the necessary legislation is not used to delay the elections and extend the current authority.
Continuing restrictions on freedom of civil associations
CHRDA monitored that the Civil Society Commission in Tripoli continued to tighten the screws on human rights organizations, and to impose arbitrary restrictions on accepting the papers of organizations wishing to register or renew their license. CHRDA contacted the head of the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press, who faced attempts to block the renewal of the Center’s license by the commission in Tripoli.
The Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press had submitted the required papers to the commission, but the NGO administration official objected to the Center’s name containing the words “freedom of the press,” and the reason for the official’s objection was that freedom of the press – in his view – was “a loose term and the commission could not grant a license for organizations with loose names.” Bizarrely, it was also objected that the Center’s name contained the description “Libyan”. This is based on the decision of the head of the Libyan Media Foundation to prohibit the use of the name “Libya” or “Libyan” in the official name of any private media entity or company that is not owned by the state, except after obtaining written approval from the head of the Libyan Media Foundation, despite the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press not being a private media organization, but instead, is a non-governmental organization. The head of the Center confirmed that the Tripoli commissioner used “preserving national security” as an excuse to reject the request.
Eventually, last February, the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press managed to obtain the approval of the General Commission in Benghazi to renew their license, but the Center’s management still has several concerns. Namely, because an official in the Tripoli Commission told officials from the Center that; “Even if you get approval from the Benghazi Commission to renew the license, we will not recognize it.” It is worth noting that following the announcement of the current interim government; In mid-March, it was announced that the Civil Society Commission would be unified in both Tripoli and Benghazi, but we have not yet seen any practical steps to unify the two boards of directors of the Commission and its two executive departments.
CHRDA affirms that the first step for reform rests with the government of national unity. It is the unification of the two boards of directors of the Commission and the abolition of the arbitrary regulations issued by them, which put obstacles in the procedures of registration of local organizations and the organization of activities and programs and imposed unfair conditions of work. The main pillar of support for freedom of association stipulated in the Interim Constitutional Declaration is the issuance of a law that organizes the work of civil society in line with international standards and provides organizations with full independence. Within this framework, CHRDA is currently working with other local organizations to develop a bill that was previously submitted to Parliament in 2017.
Ongoing violations of human rights
Libya continues to be the scene of various violent practices, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary imprisonment. According to Ján Kubiš’s briefing to the Security Council on March 24, 2021, there are approximately 9,000 arbitrary detainees in 28 official prisons in Libya under the Judicial Police, the majority of whom are in pre-trial detention. There are approximately another 10,000 people in detention centers under the authority of militias and armed groups. Reports issued by the Libyan Crime Monitoring Organization also confirm that extrajudicial killings and kidnappings continue in Benghazi, Zawiya, Tobruk, Bani Walid and Tripoli.
During the reporting period, a number of activists were kidnapped, before some were released, while the fate of some remains unknown. On March 11, 2021, gunmen belonging to the Internal Security Agency in Benghazi stormed the home of the activist Zakaria Al-Zawi and took him to Al-Kweifieh prison. He remained in prison for two days, during which time he was denied communication with his family before being released. On February 17th, 2021, singer Salem Ramadan Bel-Rahaim was kidnapped in Tripoli, after he performed in an artistic concert on the anniversary of the February 17 revolution, and he was released the next day. Some accused Al-Nawasi militia of kidnapping Bel-Rahaim. The Libyan Crime Watch Organization documented an advertisement by Bel-Rahaim in a video clip of him being beaten and his personal belongings seized. On February 25, 2021, journalist Ziyad Al-Werfalli, correspondent for Al-Ghad Al-Arabi TV, was kidnapped, following his coverage of a press conference by the Prime Minister of the National Unity Government in Tripoli, before being released on February 28. On March 27, 2021, unknown gunmen kidnapped the human rights activist, Jamal Muhammad Adas, from the Zenata area in Tripoli, his fate remains unknown.
CHRDA confirms that the persistence of impunity and the weakness of national accountability mechanisms lead to the encouragement of the recurrence of such violations by the same parties. This is due to the lack of political will to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Tarhuna: the city of mass graves
Following the escape of the so-called “Al-Kani militias” from the city of Tarhuna, which is located eighty kilometers from Tripoli, after the forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord took control of the city in June 2020 the uncovering of mass graves in Tarhuna has become routine news in Libya. In a report issued in November 2020, the International Criminal Court confirmed that it had received reliable information indicating allegations that “forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army committed serious crimes, including killings, kidnappings, enforced disappearances, looting and destruction of property.” In November 2020, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Al-Kani militia and its leader, Muhammad al-Kani, for their responsibility for the killings and torture in Tarhuna.
At the beginning of this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report on hundreds of missing persons in the city of Tarhuna, who disappeared between 2014 and 2020, amid allegations that the Al-Kani militias are responsible for the kidnappings. The report stated that the Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons confirmed that at least 338 people had disappeared during these years.
In March 2021, Tarhuna again became the front-runner of gloomy news from Libya, as more mass graves continued to be found. The head of the Tarhuna Victims Association said that 43 mass graves had been discovered, while 200 bodies had been exhumed, of which only 50 were identified. On March 22, 2021, the European Union imposed sanctions on the Al-Kani militia who are accused of committing these extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. By the end of March, the number of mass graves discovered in Tarhuna reached 101, according to the briefing of the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to Libya, Ján Kubiš, to the United Nations Security Council on March 24, 2021. In his briefing, Kubiš stressed that the security situation is unstable and that tensions are exacerbated by a lack of justice and accountability.
CHRDA confirms that local efforts are insufficient to deal with this complicated file. CHRDA believes that it is possible to rely in this case on the efforts of the fact-finding mission in Libya, which was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council, to investigate violations and abuses of human rights throughout Libya from all sides since the beginning of 2016. In this context, CHRDA requests the mission to visit the city of Tarhuna, examining the mass graves that have been discovered, and taking the necessary forensic and anatomical measures, and calls on it to seek the assistance of the International Committee for Missing Persons, which has the expertise and tools necessary to reveal the identity of the victims and the date of their killing. This should continue until the truth emerges, responsibility is determined, and the perpetrators held accountable.
Assassination of a fugitive from international justice
On March 24, 2021, Benghazi witnessed the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, the commander of a special forces unit of the Libyan National Army. His car was hit by a hail of bullets that killed him and his companion. Al-Werfalli was wanted by the International Criminal Court for “killing 33 people in seven incidents between 2016 and 2017 and another incident in 2018 where he shot 10 people.” Moreover, in 2018, Interpol included him on their most wanted list.
In 2018, the Libyan National Army announced its refusal to hand over Al-Werfalli to the International Criminal Court. The Army claimed that Libya has “an impartial law and justice system” that allows him to be tried in the country. So far, the mystery of the incident was not revealed, and it was not clear who was responsible for the assassination. However, the Military Prosecution announced the suspicion of two persons, Muhammad Abd al-Jalil Saad and Hanin Idris al-Abdali, and the latter was the daughter of lawyer Hanan al-Barasi, who was assassinated last November.
The surrender of Al-Werfalli to the International Criminal Court was not only necessary to achieve justice for his victims and hold him accountable for the crimes he committed, but also would have provided the necessary guarantees to protect his life, whether from those who want revenge or from the parties that may want to silence him before he reveals information that may lead to adding more among the names on the wanted list before the International Criminal Court.
The situation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (1)
In January 2021, dozens of Libyan organizations issued a joint statement blaming the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the death of a 19-year-old Somali asylum seeker, as a result of not receiving the necessary health care. On March 19, a minor of Sudanese nationality, among those registered with UNHCR, also died due to not receiving adequate medical care. On March 31, dozens of Sudanese families sent a complaint to international missions, embassies and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, accusing the UNHCR of failing to monitor their health and living conditions, and demanding their speedy removal from Libya, as they have been registered with the UNHCR for several years and cannot provide for their basic needs.
In early March, dozens of refugees and asylum seekers organized a protest in front of the headquarters of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Tripoli to denounce the racial discrimination against them, and to demand an end to all forms of violence committed against them. Many of them also complained that their conditions have not changed, although they have been registered with the UNHCR since 2017. On March 13, the 444th Combat Brigade, affiliated to the Tripoli Military District, stormed several sites for human trafficking and smugglers in the city of Bani Walid and its environs within the framework of a plan seeking to impose security inside the city, and a number of migrants who were in the hands of smugglers were freed. On March 24, an armed group stormed the residence of refugees registered with the UNHCR, some of whom were among the survivors of the bombing of the Tajoura detention center, seizing their possessions and money.
The period covered by the report also witnessed the continuation of the drowning of migrants off the Libyan coast. On January 19, a boat was sunk off the Libyan coast. As a result, 43 people drowned while trying to reach the shores of Europe. Additionally, the Libyan coast guard is still blocking migrants in the Mediterranean to prevent them from reaching Europe and forcibly returning them to Libya, where they face the risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment.
Moreover, the agency indicated that the food insecurity of migrants in Libya has doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2020. At the end of March, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance reached about 1.3 million, and the number of displaced persons reached 278,000. In addition, there are about 571,000 immigrants and refugees in Libya.
In its report issued in February, the International Organization for Migration said that the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe from Libya has witnessed a significant increase. According to what was published by the United Nations Agency for Humanitarian Affairs on March 24, more than 4,000 migrants and refugees were intercepted at sea; an increase of 85% compared to the same period last year.
CHRDA calls for the provision of the necessary protection and care for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and calls on the Libyan authorities, represented by the Ministry of Interior, to stop the forcible and discriminate return of migrants and asylum seekers, including forcible return across the southern borders where migrants and some asylum seekers are gathered in Kofra detention center before they are returned to neighbouring countries, without checking their legal status and without guarantees that they will not be subjected to harm or abuse in those countries.
The outcome of the discussions of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which resulted in the formation of the new government, did not positively affect the situation of human rights defenders, political activists and journalists during the past three months. The conditions of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is also worsening, and their need for humanitarian aid and protection from killing, torture and forcible return to Libya is increasing. Moreover, armed groups continue to have strong influence in various parts of Libya, and kidnappings, detentions outside the framework of the law and political assassinations are practiced in the complete absence of the rule of law, the lack of political will to end the impunity rampant in Libya, and the disarmament and dismantling of armed groups. In addition, there are no concrete steps being taken towards restructuring the various security services.
The mysterious assassination of a wanted person before the International Criminal Court indicates a worrying trend, with regard to attempts to conceal evidence of human rights violations and to eliminate witnesses or those involved to protect other offenders. In this context, the Advocate Center calls for the current government to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court and the Libya Fact-Finding Mission, which was formed under a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Finally, while the CHRDA affirms the rights of the Libyan people, in addition to global public opinion, to have access to information withheld in the report of the Panel of Experts on Libya regarding the attempts of political bribery to select certain personalities in political positions; the Center holds the current executive and legislative authorities fully responsible for conducting the presidential and parliamentary elections as scheduled on December 24th. The Center calls on all spectrums of Libyan civil society to pressure in the coming months to complete the road map and end the long-drawn transitional phase in Libya.
(1) The report in this section benefited from the information provided by the Biladi Foundation for Human Rights.
Paris – 20 April 2021