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Prisoners on both sides at risk

 IPS 11 April 2019

After a month and a half of conflict in Libya, the situation of political prisoners and prisoners of war on both sides is uncertain, and their fundamental rights are at risk. (827 Words) - By Francesca Cicardi

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IPS_Prisoners on Both Sides at Risk

 Prisoner of war presented by the Libyan rebels to the international press as a "mercenary." Photo: Jovi Ibarra/IPS

More than 400 people in eastern Libya have gone missing since the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi began on Feb. 15, according to Human Rights Watch and the Libyan Red Crescent in Benghazi.

Some were arrested in the first days of the uprising, when the protests were still peaceful and rebels had not yet taken up arms.

But most of those missing are prisoners of war, captured at or near the front since fighting broke out in March. They are "shabab" - young volunteer fighters - or supporters of the rebel army caught while transporting supplies or going or coming from the front line on the road to Benghazi in the northeast, according to Amnesty International.

They are believed to be in the hands of government forces and may have been taken to the Gaddafi strongholds of Sirte or Tripoli, in the north and northwest, respectively.

The people of eastern Libya are used to abuses by the regime, which has been especially hard on that region: every resident of Benghazi has a relative or friend who has suffered at the hands of the Amn al-Dawla, or secret police.

The families of the missing men and NGOs working in the area say the disappeared face a serious risk of violations of their basic rights.

And there are no channels of communication open to negotiate the release of the prisoners - who include medical workers and journalists; monitor the conditions they are being held in; or simply find out where they are. Most of them are listed as missing.

Prisoners held by rebels too

The rebels have also taken political prisoners and prisoners of war. Although there are no reliable figures, scores or perhaps hundreds have been detained since the start of the conflict. But the great majority have been released.

They are the so-called mercenaries, suspected of fighting for Gaddafi for money. Most of them come from sub-Saharan Africa, and they have been persecuted in rebel-held areas.

But migrant workers from sub-Saharan African countries have also been targeted in the east. Many have been detained, hundreds have been injured in attacks by angry crowds, and some have been lynched.

In the last two weeks, while the rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces have fought for control of the towns of Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf, on the Mediterranean coast, the rebel army has also captured Libyan army troops, mainly during the government assault on Benghazi.

Very little is known about the captured troops, and their cases are the most complicated, Amnesty International researcher Donatella Rovera told IPS.

Rebel spokesman Essam Gheriani said the anti-Gaddafi forces are strictly respecting international standards in the treatment of the prisoners of war they have taken.

Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, which is acting as the interim government based in Benghazi, told IPS that the prisoners will be investigated and tried.

But the problem is that justice is virtually non-existent in this North African country after nearly 42 years of dictatorship.

Rovera said "Right now there is nothing, there are no institutions, and the few that do exist might not be capable of doing this job."

Gheriani himself admitted that the new authorities lack experience and have made mistakes in the treatment of prisoners.

The biggest error was parading them before a busload of international journalists, and presenting them as "mercenaries," thus disregarding the presumption of innocence and endangering their lives and those of their families, who could suffer reprisals, Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director, told IPS.

The activist has been working to prevent this from happening in Libya, also appealing to the media to maintain high ethical standards.

Other than that, the rights of the prisoners have been respected, according to Rovera, who said the rebel authorities are concerned with safeguarding their integrity and are holding them in secret locations to keep them safe from angry crowds.

No cases of abuse or torture have been registered, said Rovera, who has been able to ascertain the conditions in which they are being held.

"We might hate them, but we cannot deny them their basic human rights," which have been forgotten, however, on a number of occasions due to inexperience and revolutionary fervour, Gheriani acknowledged.

The rebels have come to see the mercenaries as a symbol of the regime's cruelty and the incarnation of all evil. They are also the easiest targets. "It is always simpler to believe that it is not your own brothers who are hurting you," said Rovera.

That would explain the misinformation and secrecy surrounding the Libyan detainees, both soldiers and civilians loyal to the regime who, in Benghazi for example, are hunted down, seized and turned over to the Transitional National Council. Their numbers, identities and location are unknown.

 
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Originally published by Inter Press Service. © www.streetnewsservice.org

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