5 Jul 2012

Militias threaten Libya’s post-elections future

Salem Abushrida greeted us in the red mourning tent erected outside his Tripoli home. Dressed in a jird with a cream-coloured embroidered waistcoat, he organised plastic chairs for us to sit on. An elderly man in a suit arrived and they embraced. Tears rolled down Salem’s brown face into his beard, and the two men clutched onto each other and sobbed. The mourning was not for an elderly relative whose time had come but for Salem’s 36 year old son, Abdu Salam.

Today Amnesty International published a report into human rights abuse in Libya, which demonstrates how the militias that were instrumental in overthrowing the Gaddafi dictatorship, now threaten the country’s future.

The story of the Abushridas is a case in point. Last Thursday, Abdu Salem was seized on the street by four armed men who bundled him into a car. Twenty-four hours later his body was in a hospital morgue, showing signs of torture and beating. That same day, Salem himself was kidnapped, bundled into a car, beaten with rifle butts and punched until he passed out.

“They’re killing people with cold blood, they don’t care about life,” he said.

Salem was a Gaddafi supporter, but that isn’t necessarily why his family was targeted. Although the family comes from eastern Libya, they settled in Tripoli, buying a farm in the western town of Zawiya in 1991. He believes that his son was killed and he was attacked because the militiamen – whom he says he knows – wanted their farm, and to drive easterners out of western Libya.

“For this reason they kill my son, and they try to kill me. For this reason they kill me again,” he said.

According to Amnesty, “the militias…are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities, often solely for reasons of revenge”. It says some 7,000 people are being held in unauthorised militia prisons, and many have been tortured.

In post-revolutionary Libya, the police force and judiciary scarcely function and central government is weak. Elections to be held on Saturday should bring in a government with more legitimacy than the interim authorities which have been running the country since the fall of Gaddafi, but there is no guarantee it will be strong enough to rein in the militia.

(Pictured: Ballot boxes burnt by Libyan militias)

While I was talking to Salem, a call came in. The prosecutors office said three of the four men he believes kidnapped his son had been arrested. If they are brought to court through a proper judicial process, that would be a sign that new institutions are beginning to function.

If not, the danger is that a cycle of revenge will start, and the new government will be unable to assert control.

Lindsey Hilsum’s report on the danger and promise of the Libyan elections will be on Channel 4 News on Friday 6 July. Follow Lindsey on Twitter via @lindseyhilsum


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