By Samar Sayyid
Detainees at a notorious prison in Libya are suffering abuse at the hands of militias led by warlord Khalifa Haftar.
While many may be unaware of the current situation in Libya, the Libyan National Army, a self-proclaimed band of tribal militias and extremists backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia (and recently “endorsed” by US President Donald Trump), is running “secret” prisons in which prisoners disappear and get tortured.
Gernada in eastern Libya is home to many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of dictatorship.
And yet, as these tribal militias, who are under the command of former CIA neighbour Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, gain ground in Libya, hundreds of Libyans have either been killed, displaced, or detained without due cause.
During Haftar’s offensive to take over the port city of Derna in May 2018, checkpoints were set up on the outskirts of the city. Many knew these checkpoints were traps for residents leaving the city. The fate of many who were arrested, both young and old, remains unknown.
Gernada, where even women and children are detained, has become the go-to place to find missing loved ones.
The late Rasheed Al Gubaily, a scholar from Derna who tried leaving the city for medical treatment, was detained at a military checkpoint and taken to Gernada by LNA militias.
Despite his deteriorating health, he was denied medical assistance and was reportedly killed under torture.
He is one of many who has met this fate.
Among the many who have been arbitrarily detained are Adel Al Barasi, a prominent activist, and Col Yahya Al Osta Omar, a military commander under the wing of the United Nations-back Government of National Accord (GNA).
A list of more than 700 prisoners reveals that children as young as 15 and 16, as well as elderly detainees over the age of 70, are being held as part of a campaign of collective punishment against the people of Derna.
A leaked recording of the voice of the former head of Gernada prison reveals the extent of the cruelty and degradation.
“They are forced to swim in sewage, with no beds to sleep on and no clothes to wear,” he is heard saying.
One former prisoner told TRT World the extent of the horrors taking place inside the prison and the torture he faced at the hands of Saudi-backed extremists.
The former detainee, who chose to remain anonymous, said prisoners are subject to psychological and sexual abuse and are forced to walk on shattered glass blindfolded, are pushed down the stairs, kicked in the genitals and hit with pipes, as well as have their hair pulled and their hands tied up.
There have also been reports of a rise in health issues due to high incarceration rates. Sources from inside Gernada have confirmed the outbreak of skin diseases and the spread of tuberculosis among prisoners. According to the sources, dozens of prisoners developed an apparent skin rash resulting in constant itching and irritation. Until recently, no medical assistance has been provided by the prison administration, and humanitarian organisations like the Red Crescent have been denied entry.
The families of prisoners have not been allowed to visit, and as such, many are afraid that their loved ones have been executed. One family said: “we tried to visit our son, but they pointed their guns at us and ordered us to leave.”
Many families and children have been demanding the release of their loved ones from Gernada.
One prisoner wrote: “My brother, I trust you in making our voices and our suffering heard abroad. The situation is tragic. Torture, rape and violations of our manhood. One of them threatens to rape me every day, and I’m in a very bad psychological state.”
When it comes to prisons, we usually think of criminals being behind bars and the good guys as the gatekeepers. Gernada, however, shows just the opposite.
The torture, mistreatment and starvation of innocent civilians detained at checkpoints is glaring evidence of the failure of the judicial system in Libya. It is, therefore, the duty of the international community to demand the release of those who have been arbitrarily detained and bring human rights violators to book.
Libyans are now demanding answers. Will the LNA ever be held accountable?
Samar Sayyid is a senior producer at TRT World. Samar writes about the whys of human behaviour.