Tripoli — Thousands of people in Libya remain locked up in militia prisons, outside of state control, more than two years after the revolution, according to a new UN report presented to the Security Council.
The report says many are suffering torture and mistreatment and calls the situation “unacceptable”.
“We have a big problem. But it is a problem we are trying to tackle,” Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Marghani, speaking after the report’s release, told IRIN.
“We haven’t given up. Even though the circumstances are challenging, we’re still pushing to improve the situation.”
The report estimates the number of conflict-related detainees is around 8,000, some held in facilities only “nominally” under the authority of the justice or defence ministries, and the rest by “armed brigades not affiliated with the State in any form.”
“I remain deeply concerned at the slow and insufficient progress in the transfer of detainees from the custody of armed brigades to the State,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s report, which updates the Security Council on the UN Support Mission in Libya.
The UN says it has gathered evidence suggesting that at least 10 deaths in custody this year were due to torture and that no one has yet been held accountable. It also says there is evidence of continuing torture in both government institutions and prisons beyond government control, something humanitarian organizations working in Libya back up.
“Right now, the only factor significantly bringing down the number of detainees being mistreated and tortured is the number of mass prison breaks that are taking place,” said Amnesty International researcher Magda Mughrabi.
“We’ve visited prisons where the abuse is systematic,” Mughrabi said. “Often militias come and go as they please, even in prisons that are supposed to be under government control. They’re better armed than the judicial police and treat prisoners however they want. In one detention facility, we even documented a case where a militia abducted a prisoner from within his jail cell.”
Amnesty International says it has found instances of detainees being beaten with hosepipes, set on fire and subjected to electric shocks. Detainees also told the organization they had received cuts to the genitals and were sprayed in the eyes with insect repellent.
“We are still in a state of revolutions,” said Justice Minister Marghani. “You can see the amount of weapons that are spread around. The amount of control you can have in this situation is limited.”
Marghani says many of the 10,000 former rebels who have been integrated into the judicial police have only had basic training, and this is something Libya is trying to combat with the assistance of the international community.
“We’ve got a good programme to train prison guards in place, including an in-house advisor from the UK here in the Justice Ministry. But our capacity is limited.”
The UN Support Mission in Libya, along with the UK and the European Union, is providing training to prison guards and the judiciary, but according to the World Organisation Against Torture (WOAT), an organization that runs some of the training programmes, the current level of assistance is not enough to initiate whole-scale transformation.
“The number of officers that need training is enormous,” said Karim Salem, project coordinator for WOAT. “Without proper large-scale training, it’s impossible to change the culture in these institutions.”
Governing under duress
Prison reform is only one of a number of initiatives currently on standby in Libya as the security situation worsens and the country’s political and judiciary systems struggle.
Libya’s congress is gridlocked over discussions on how to create the country’s constitution, and the UN Secretary-General’s report warns of a deterioration in the effectiveness of the country’s transitional government.
“Conflicting interests and views of political and regional forces in the country, reflected in the General National Congress, may have compromised its effectiveness as a legislative body and its standing in the eyes of many Libyans. This has had an undeniable impact on the stability of the political process and has hindered the government in its ability to address the main problems facing the country.”
Militias are also helping to derail the political process by staging armed protests when it comes to key congressional decisions and have caused members of Libya’s congress to complain of being forced to vote under duress.
The threat of violence also hangs over the country’s judiciary.
Prosecutors have repeatedly gone on strike this year in the southwestern city of Sabha due to intimidation by armed groups, a situation that has been exacerbated by repeated break-outs from the city’s prison.
The UN says safety of judicial personnel remains a “serious concern” and warns that “the volatile security situation continues to pose an obstacle to the establishment of a fully functioning judicial system.” It cites several attacks on prosecutors and judges as well as bomb attacks on courthouses in Benghazi and Sirte.
No negotiating power
The fragile security situation also means that Libya’s government is in a weak position when it comes to negotiating with large brigades, which continue to hold prisoners outside of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence.
One of the biggest armed groups holding prisoners beyond state control is the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a force parallel to the official army that was created out of the remnants of a number of revolutionary brigades. It is funded and armed by the government and has two prisons at its Tripoli headquarters.
Attempts to force it to hand over detainees have resulted in repeated raids on the Justice Ministry and the intimidation of politicians.
“The SSC shouldn’t have prisons,” said Marghani. “We don’t consider these legitimate. They should hand over those people to the government so they can get real justice.”