Gaddafi’s campaign of disappearances

Libya: detainees, disappeared and missing,” a newly released report from Amnesty International, describes Colonel Gaddafi’s campaign to silence his critics which has targeted government critics, writers, journalists, pro-democracy activists — even children.

    He is in their (the forces of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi) hands and we have no idea where he is being held and what kind of treatment he is being subjected to. We are very worried that he is being tortured and if we speak about his case they may further punish him, and that the safety of his wife and children in Tripoli may be endangered.
    — Relatives of a man arrested from his home in Tripoli, in the late afternoon of 22 February 2011, in front of his wife and children.

Many people have been subjected to enforced disappearance1 by forces loyal to Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi since the current unrest began in Libya in mid-February 2011, including dozens who were arrested and detained in eastern Libya and are believed to have been transferred to the Tripoli area that are controlled by al-Gaddafi forces. These detainees and disappeared persons are at grave risk of torture and other serious human rights abuses. The true number is impossible to calculate as the authorities in Tripoli generally do not divulge information about people they are detaining and because many areas of the country are not accessible for independent reporting; indeed, a number of Libyan and international journalists have been detained and ill-treated for seeking to report from areas in which al-Gaddafi forces have carried out arrests and attacks against civilians, and some are also still missing and unaccounted for having been detained by al-Gaddafi forces. Other journalists who have been released as a result of international pressure, including journalists from the BBC and The New York Times, have reported that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Some were subjected to mock executions.

An Amnesty International fact-finding team has been in eastern Libya since 26 February 2011. The team has visited several towns and interviewed relatives and friends of disappeared and missing persons. Some have been unaccounted for since early January 2011, although most have been subjected to enforced disappearance since mid-February 2011, the beginning of peaceful protests against Colonel al-Gaddafi’s government.

Cases of recently disappeared or missing persons documented by Amnesty International fall into three broad categories:

  • government critics, pro-democracy activists, writers and others detained in the lead-up to the peaceful demonstrations held on 17 February 2011 in various cities throughout Libya. They appear to have been arrested by the authorities as a pre-emptive strike in an effort to nip the protests in the bud following the public protests that had caused the downfall of longstanding repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt, two of Libya’s neighbours. Amnesty International has documented cases of people arrested in Tripoli, Benghazi, al-Bayda and Misratah whose fate and whereabouts currently remain unknown. They include some detainees who were initially allowed access to their families or lawyers until such contacts were cut by the authorities once the public protests began. Relatives believe that these and other detainees held when the protests got underway were then transferred to Tripoli by security forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi.
  • anti-government protestors and youths who went missing on the evening of 20 February at a time when a special forces unit loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi – the “Kateeba al-Fadheel” (hereafter, the Kateeba) – were forced to evacuate from a military compound in Benghazi after clashes with protestors opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi, with some using petrol bombs and other improvised weapons. These violent clashes occurred after the Kateeba or other forces had opened fire on, killing and injuring peaceful protestors. Amnesty International has documented the cases of nine men and boys who have not been seen since they went to the Kateeba compound area on evening of 20 February 2011, including four teenagers under 18. They are believed to have been arrested or abducted by members of the Kateeba unit or other forces brought in from outside Benghazi as reinforcements to the Kateeba before they evacuated their military compound and withdrew from Benghazi.
  • individuals reported to have been captured in or near the town of Ben Jawad where there had been intermittent fighting between Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces and those engaged in armed opposition to his government. Amnesty International has obtained information about a number of individuals who went missing in the area between Ajdebia and Ben Jawad, west of Benghazi. Some are believed to have been fighters, others to be civilians who went to the area in order to assist the wounded, and still others people who may have been onlookers. Currently, many are unaccounted for and it is not known where they are being held or in what conditions, prompting serious concern for their safety.

Reports from Tripoli, and other parts of the country that remain under the control of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces or have been subject to attack by those forces indicate that the number of those now subject to enforced disappearance is much greater than the number of cases that Amnesty International – which does not have direct access to Tripoli or other areas controlled by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, and where the authorities maintain tight control over information – has so far been able to document.

All across Libya, families report that they live in daily fear of reprisals against their disappeared relatives and many are unwilling for their names to be disclosed publicly, believing that this will expose their detained relatives to even greater risk.

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