Blanket amnesty to those who committed crimes during the revolution is allowing the militias to indulge in lawless behaviour

The death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 has focused attention once more on the security situation in the country. No doubt, after 42 years of undemocratic rule it is reasonable to expect a slow transition into normalcy. A new government elected in July operates without control of its territory, and with institutions that are not yet fully functional.

The central government based in Tripoli is an island linked to Libya’s other towns and cities, where urban militias govern through the armed force of two hundred and fifty thousand fighters. A U.S. State Department cable from Tripoli to Washington on August 8, 2012 cautions that “the absence of significant deterrence has contributed to a security vacuum that is being exploited” by various elements, including former regime elements and Islamist extremists. The “individual incidents have been organized,” writes the embassy official in this leaked cable, “but this is not an organized campaign.” Rather, the violent incidents amount to “a confluence rather than a conspiracy.” It was this confluence of violence that escalated the protest in Benghazi that led to the death of the Ambassador.

Attempts to investigate the events of September 11 in Benghazi have come to naught. The Libyan government has not been able to do more than a cursory study of the site. The U.S. team cannot go to Benghazi, where the security situation remains unsettled. The day that the U.S. investigation team arrived in Tripoli, three separate militia groups attacked the Rixos hotel, where the General National Congress is based. Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the leaders of the Ansar al-Shariah militia, sat down with journalists in a Benghazi hotel on October 18 to mock the idea of an investigation of the fateful hours at the U.S. consulate. Abu Khattala suggested that he had close relations with the pro-government militias, such as the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, which was also on site during the consulate attack. No investigation would take place, he suggested, because there was little that would be found.

Hanging over the Libyan security situation is the lack of accountability for war crimes during the February-October revolution of 2011. On May 2, 2012, the Libyan National Transitional Council granted blanket amnesty to those who committed crimes during the revolution, including murder and forced displacement. Law 38 (On Some Procedures for the Transitional Period) essentially allowed the militias the confidence of impunity. It emboldened them to disregard the war crimes conducted last year, and to consider that their actions in the present will also be similarly forgiven. The danger of “victor’s justice” is that it creates a political grammar that affects the new terrain, allowing the militias institutional support for their lawless behaviour.

Rights report on militias

A new report from Human Rights Watch (Death of a Dictator: Bloody Vengeance in Sirte, October 2012) details how the main Misrata-based militias (al-Nimer, Tiger Brigade, al-Isnad, Support Brigade, al-Fahad, Jaguar Brigade, al-Asad, Lion Brigade, al-Qasba, Citadel Brigade and Ussoud al-Walid, the Lions of the Valley Brigade) not only conducted extrajudicial assassinations of Muammar Qadhafi and his son Mutassim, but also killed over 66 prisoners in the Mahari hotel in Sirte on October 20, 2011. Two NATO air strikes had already killed about 103 members of Qadhafi’s convoy (many of them wounded patients from the Ibn Sina hospital, trying to flee the scene of the battle). Cellphone images and photographs, as well as interviews with survivors, showed the investigators that the dead were killed in custody. Human Rights Watch’s investigation is clear that war crimes had been committed at Sirte. The Misrata chief prosecutor balked at an inquiry, saying that it would be too “dangerous” to “carry out an investigation in Sirte at the time,” a situation that seems unchanged.

The Misrata militias are particularly prone to lawlessness. They are accused of the forcible displacement of the 30,000 dark-skinned residents of the town of Tawergha, and in the cellphone images from Sirte, their members routinely use racist epithets (“black snake,” for example) against their prisoners. There has been little attempt to resettle Tawergha.

The Misrata militia has laid siege to the city of Bani Walid, where there has been less enthusiasm for the new Libya, and whose citizens have been accused of kidnapping and killing Omar Bin Shaaban, a 22-year-old Misratan credited with the murder of Qadhafi. Misrata’s militias are acting with the authority of the government, which passed Resolution 7 on September 25 to allow them to go in and capture those who killed Bin Shaaban. The militias are not constrained to simply go and arrest the accused. They want to subdue Bani Walid. As Mohammed el-Gandus, a spokesperson for the militias put it, “If we win this fight, Libya will finally be free.”

The atmosphere of impunity does not only shroud the activities of the militias. The passage of Resolution 7 and Law 38 demonstrate that the Libyan government has not taken the regime of human rights seriously. The International Criminal Court (ICC), so eager to enter the conflict in February 2011, has also taken a back seat. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 gives the ICC jurisdiction over the Libyan theatre at least during the conflict phase; it has utterly failed to honour these obligations. Furthermore, NATO entered the Libyan conflict to protect civilians in the name of the human rights regime. Nevertheless, NATO and the Atlantic powers have refused to allow any evaluation of their use of firepower against Libya with resulting civilian casualties whose numbers are unaccountable (as I showed in “When Protector Turned Killer,” The Hindu, June 11, 2012). NATO’s casualties include the dead in Sirte. Its drones struck the convoy, leaving them at the will of the Misrata militias.

U.S. presidential campaign

Benghazi entered the U.S. presidential campaign as a proxy for a debate over foreign policy between Obama and Romney. Neither has taken honestly the consequences of the U.S.-led NATO intervention, and neither is capable of understanding the grave situation in Libya where certain militias act with impunity. A U.S. State Department document from August remarks that the Libyan government “has acknowledged the problem of the Militias in torture and detentions, but it admits that the police and Justice Ministry are not up to the task of stopping them. On Tuesday, it sent out a text message on all cellphones, pleading for the militias to stop.” The U.S. worries that Libya might become a “failed state.” What is not recognised is that it is precisely the lack of seriousness toward accountability and law that fuel the failure of new institutions to emerge. Ambassador Chris Stevens was not the only victim of this lawlessness. He is one among many.

(Vijay Prashad, a contributor to Frontline, is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, LeftWord, 2012.)

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