By Julian E. Barnes
Khalifa Hifter’s Virginia properties could make him vulnerable to a new lawsuit filed under a 1991 anti-torture law.
A former C.I.A. asset who now controls the most potent military faction in Libya has been accused of torturing Libyans, and some of them tried on Tuesday to use the American court system to fight back.
Victims of the military forces led by the Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter hope to use his properties in the United States against him, taking advantage of a little-used American law to accuse him of torture and sue him in federal court in Virginia on Tuesday.
Two Libyans said their family members were tortured to death by Mr. Hifter’s forces in October 2014 as chaos engulfed Libya, leading eventually to a renewed civil war. Those families are seeking restitution from Mr. Hifter and his sons.
Passed in 1991, the Torture Victim Protection Act allows family members of the victims of extrajudicial killings and torture to sue the people responsible. The law is aimed at perpetrators of torture who are acting under apparent government authority.
Many other suits filed under the act have failed to gain traction because there are few assets for the court system to seize if a lawsuit succeeds. But Mr. Hifter and his sons own at least 17 properties in Virginia worth a total of at least $8 million, according to the lawsuit.
The complicated past of Mr. Hifter, a dual Libyan-American citizen, makes him potentially vulnerable to legal action in American courts.
During the Reagan administration, he was a C.I.A. asset who the United States hoped could lead a coup against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. For a time after Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, Mr. Hifter was the head of the military for Libya’s internationally recognized government. Now Mr. Hifter, whose forces have laid siege to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, is fighting the interim government and leads the faction backed by Russia and much of the Arab world but opposed by Europe and the United States.
On Tuesday, talks between the factions sponsored by the United Nations resumed in Geneva, a day after the European Union agreed to begin an arms embargo against Libya.
Mr. Hifter’s work for the C.I.A., like almost all spy operations, is draped in mystery. A former aide to Colonel Qaddafi, he turned on the Libyan leader in 1987 and was recruited by American intelligence. A planned coup never came to fruition, and Mr. Hifter and his rebel group were eventually brought to the United States. Mr. Hifter and his sons settled in Northern Virginia, where they eventually bought several properties.
When a rebellion rose against the Qaddafi government in 2011, prompting the intervention of the United States and NATO, Mr. Hifter returned to Libya, building up a powerful faction.
In 2014, with an interim government in place after Colonel Qaddafi’s death, Mr. Hifter and his forces launched a broad offensive in Benghazi, Libya, called Operation Dignity, aimed at routing out extremist Islamic militants. Mr. Hifter’s two sons, Khalid and Saddam, served as officers under him and led fighting in Benghazi.
During an offensive that October, two families got caught up in the violence.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said that Mr. Hifter’s forces captured the Suyid family home. When the father, Adel Salam al-Suyid, and his son, Ibrahim, rushed home to rescue other family members, they were captured and kidnapped. The next day, their bodies were discovered bearing injuries that showed they were tortured.
Two days later, other forces under Mr. Hifter’s command attacked the Krshiny home, killing two family members. Six brothers from the family were taken prisoner, accused of being members of the Islamic State. Ibrahim al-Krshiny, already injured in the eye from the attack on the house, was stripped and then beaten about the head with pipes, cables and a broomstick, according to the lawsuit. Then, over the next seven and a half hours, he was subjected to electric shocks.
Mr. al-Krshiny was eventually released but lost an eye as a result of the abuse, according to his lawsuit. His brother Mustafa’s body was found days later, his hands tied behind his back and bullet holes in his head and chest. Another brother, Ali, was also shot to death, and three others were wounded.
“In October 2014, 10 men from these families were imprisoned, beaten, electrocuted or shot by Hifter’s forces,” said Kevin Carroll, a lawyer with Wiggin and Dana who represents the families. “These families will not receive due process in a country largely controlled by Hifter.”
The lawsuit accuses Mr. Hifter and his sons of using the Libyan National Army to wage “an indiscriminate war against the Libyan people,” torturing and killing hundreds without any judicial process.
A spokesman for Mr. Hifter said he was not aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment on its allegations.
Mr. Hifter’s forces have regularly used abduction, torture and rape to try to exert control over Libya, said Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It is a bad situation on the ground in Libya,” he said.
There is little in the way of a paper trail in the chaos of Libya, Mr. Nassif said, making the sheer scale of human rights violations hard to fully understand.
“We are documenting these abuses the best we can, but we know it is just the tip of the iceberg and there could be far more things happening, mostly in areas controlled by Hifter’s forces,” Mr. Nassif said.
Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter for The New York Times covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining the Times’s Washington bureau in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal, based in Brussels and Washington. He has more than 17 years’ experience covering U.S. national security, the military and related matters for the Journal, The Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report.
The New York Times