(Beirut) – The Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) should urgently investigate evidence that fighters affiliated with it apparently tortured, summarily executed, and desecrated corpses of opposing fighters, Human Rights Watch said today.
The attacks by the armed group, which is under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar, were recorded and posted on social media in May 2020. One video shows fighters whom Human Rights Watch has identified as being linked to the armed group beating a man whom they later claimed to have killed. Another shows people Human Rights Watch also identified as fighters with the group apparently desecrating the body of a detained fighter linked with the international recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
“Khalifa Hiftar needs to urgently hold his forces accountable for any war crimes they are committing and apparently advertising online,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Senior LAAF leadership has ignored these crimes, but they should be held accountable by domestic and international courts for complicity in abuses.”
In a letter sent to General Hiftar on May 28, Human Rights Watch requested information about these two incidents and any investigation into them and possible consequences for those responsible. The LAAF, formerly known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), has not responded.
Governance in Libya remains divided between the two entities engaged in an armed conflict since April 2019: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based GNA and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya that is affiliated with the LAAF. The LAAF has received military support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Egypt, and Russia, and political support from France. It includes fighters from Sudan, Chad, and Syria, and from a Kremlin-linked private military company. Turkey is the main military backer of the GNA, with some fighters from Chad, Sudan, and Syria. A two-way arms embargo ordered by the United Nations Security Council in 2011 and renewed multiple times remains in force.
On May 6 and 7, two videos and a photograph showing the ill treatment of a man by a group of men in military and civilian clothing were posted on social media. The incident took place in Ain Zara and the two men are apparently linked with the LAAF Battalion 646, one of the apparent attackers says in one of the videos. Both men can be seen hitting a man’s face in one video while he is immobilized on the ground, accusing him of being a foreign mercenary. The other video shows the same man, this time blindfolded, being forced down a staircase by a group of armed men.
The first of these videos and the photograph of the same incident were posted on May 6 on a Facebook page. The title of this post claimed that the victim had been subsequently killed: “God is great, praise be to God, one of Juwaili’s mercenaries was arrested in Abu Salim and he was turned into a rotten cadaver…. Glory and eternity to the martyr of Battalion 646.” Osama Juweili is the GNA military commander for the western region.
The owner of the Facebook page, in response to comments by others, states that the detainee had been subsequently killed.
In another video that appeared on Twitter on May 9, three armed men in army fatigues circle the body of a man who is lying face down in a pool of blood on the street. All three men are apparently linked to the LAAF, according to photographs being shared online that identify one of the apparent attackers. This person violently shakes the man’s head, calling him “a rotten cadaver” and “a dog” and says, “this is how you will end” as a warning to other opposing fighters. Human Rights Watch could not determine the location of this video.
Human Rights Watch previously documented summary executions and desecration of corpses of opposition fighters by LAAF-linked groups in Benghazi, the group’s eastern stronghold. The International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Libya since 2011, issued a warrant in 2017 and another in 2018 for the arrest of an LAAF commander, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, for his role in a series of extra-judicial executions and desecration of fighters’ corpses. Al-Werfalli remains at large.
The torture of detainees and summary execution of fighters who have been captured or who have surrendered are war crimes. Articles 292 and 293 of the Libyan Penal Code prohibit the desecration of corpses. International humanitarian law obligates all conflict parties to take all possible measures to prevent bodies of the dead from being despoiled.
All parties to the conflict in Libya, including foreign backers such as the UAE, Russia, and Turkey, are obliged to abide by the laws of war. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes in Libya are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed there since February 15, 2011.
Senior military commanders carry legal responsibility for ordering or failing to prevent serious violations that forces under their command are committing and failing to hand over any of their subordinates responsible for war crimes to face criminal investigation and a fair trial. Senior LAAF commanders are obligated to support steps to hold those responsible for these actions accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
To help end the cycle of impunity in Libya, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should, during its upcoming session in June, establish an international fact-finding mission to document violations, identify those responsible, including external actors, preserve evidence where possible for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on the human rights situation in Libya.
“Senior LAAF commanders should know that they too can be held accountable for a plethora of war crimes by their rank and file if they don’t hold those responsible for the crimes to account,” Salah said.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a 41-second video and a photograph posted on May 6 on the Facebook page [warning, graphic] apparently belonging to an LAAF fighter from Battalion 646 who states that the incident took place in Ain Zara, an area in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The video shows a dark-skinned man wearing civilian clothes – a white shirt and beige trousers – sitting on the ground with his arms tied behind his back and a rope around his neck that is connected to his legs. Two men, one wearing civilian clothes, the other wearing army fatigues, hit the bound man several times on his face and back with their hands and walkie-talkies while shouting profanities and accusing him of being a mercenary.
The photograph posted on the same Facebook profile shows the two men smiling at the camera while holding up the tied-up man by a rope around his neck
Human Rights Watch reviewed another 50-second video [warning, graphic] posted on Twitter on May 7 that shows 8 men, including the 2 men visible in the video posted on Facebook the previous day, roughly escorting the same man in beige trousers and white shirt, this time blindfolded with his hands bound behind his back, down 2 flights of stairs. Two of the men carry weapons and a walkie talkie. The video ends with the men leading the blindfolded man outside.
The title of the post accompanying the photo and video on Facebook from May 6 says that the man had been subsequently killed, calling him a “rotten cadaver.”
On May 9, a 30-second video [warning, graphic] was posted on Twitter that shows 3 armed men in army fatigues circling around a man who is lying face down in a pool of blood on a small street between multi-story buildings. It is not possible to determine the extent of the man’s injuries except for a head injury. It is also not clear whether the man is severely wounded or dead. According to a forensic expert who reviewed the video at the request of Human Rights Watch, the man’s blood had not yet congealed, which indicates that the bleeding occurred within one hour or less before the video was taken.
The person recording the video, apparently a fighter linked with the LAAF, violently shakes the man’s head and, speaking directly into the camera, calls him “a rotten cadaver” and says “this is what will happen to you,” in an apparent reference to opposing armed groups from the GNA.