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Amnesty International Condemns ‘Sham, Torture-Tainted’ Trials
(L to R) Libyan military police Brig. Gen. Abdel Basset Abu Gharis and Benghazi chief of military prosecution Col. Ali Madi give a joint press conference at the former's office in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, March 27, 2021. (Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images)

Amnesty International Condemns ‘Sham, Torture-Tainted’ Trials

Eastern Libya is trying civilians in military court, and Western Libya is no bastion of justice, either

Amnesty International has called on Libya’s new national unity government to halt and conduct a probe into the show trials of dissidents in Eastern Libya. Since 2018, at least 22 people have been handed death sentences and hundreds have been incarcerated, with many suffering from torture as they await trial. Those who receive trials are routinely denied legal representation and in some cases are even unaware of what crime they have been accused of.

“The use of military trials for civilians is a blatant smokescreen by which the LAAF [Libyan Arab Armed Forces] and affiliated armed groups are exerting their power to punish those who oppose them and instill a climate of fear,” Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an April 26 press release.

The LAAF and other militias are affiliated with General Khalifa Haftar, who rose to power in 2014, after the country was divided into east and west as a result of continued fighting and contested electoral contests.

This was just three years after Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s leader for over four decades, was toppled in 2011. The country has struggled to maintain a steady government ever since.

The United Nations-supported Government of National Accord would take control of the west, with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj assuming the role of prime minister in 2016.

Libya approved the UN-sponsored national unity government, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, on March 10 to act as one government for all of Libya.

While the government of national unity is technically in charge of the entire country, in practice, militias affiliated with Haftar are the ones who yield the power.

Still, Hussein Baoumi, Libya and Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, says that the new government can play a role in stopping the east’s judiciary practices.

“By declaring these trials illegitimate, the government of national unity will make it difficult to enforce these verdicts … but by not really expressing their views on these trials, they’re tacitly allowing these trials to go forward,” he told The Media Line. “The whole idea of these military trials is to add a façade of legitimacy to the practice of abductions, kidnappings, torture, and so on and when these rulings are issued.”

Baoumi says that these verdicts have long-lasting impacts on victims, which include journalists, human rights offenders, medical personnel, political activists and anyone who is remotely critical of Haftar’s authority.

“In one case of a doctor that was convicted by a military court, his contract with a public hospital in Benghazi was declared invalid because of the decision and when he moved to Tripoli [in the west], he still was unable to find work in the public sector because of that verdict,” he said.

While these military trials still occur, Baoumi says that the actual number of prisoners in Eastern Libya remains unknown.

“These trials are veiled in secrecy because the public is not allowed to enter and the media is not allowed to cover them. People that we were speaking to document what is going on were quite afraid, and rightfully so, of potential reprises,” he said.

Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, who interviewed Haftar that same year, contends that the military judicial system is a natural conclusion to his vision of the armed forces playing a major part in Libyan society, which includes appointing military officers as mayors, police force, and in charge of aspects of the local economy.

“He’s always believed civilians are inept and corrupt and that the military should take the lead. It’s a standard talking point: We’re in this national crisis, this is an emergency, we need the discipline of the military to take over and that has obviously played out in the eastern part of Libya,” he told The Media Line.

“It’s playing out unfortunately in the court system with the sham military trials and the message is clear to Libyan citizens in the east: don’t criticize Haftar … or bad things are going to await you,” Wehrey continued.

Haftar’s platform initially enjoyed more support amongst the populace as a solution to the out-of-control security situation with daytime shootings and kidnappings. The general promised safety, which has not occurred.

“When you talk to some people, they did think that maybe the military could restore order and get Libyans out of this mess. But I think many of them now realize that that was a false promise. The military has not in fact provided security or moved the country forward,” Wehrey said. “You have people that challenged that narrative and we have seen what has happened to them, unfortunately.”

“Haftar’s military has acted, in effect, as just one more militia,” he added, noting there has been an uptick in violence in the east.

While Amnesty International criticizes only Eastern Libya in its announcement, Wehrey says that Western Libya has its own challenges in providing due process.

“In the western part of Libya, there are equally bad or equally dire problems in the judicial sector … where the courts are functioning militias dispensing their own justice and running their own prisons,” he said. “There is an attorney general but there is a whole different set of problems that is not necessarily related to the military controlling it but rather various armed groups and militias being involved in it.”

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