By Rob Crilly
The public relations firm that helped launch President Trump’s election campaign is lining up a fact-finding tour of Libya as part of a $1.5-million contract to lobby on behalf of the government of Tripoli.
Gotham Government Relations and Communication is recruiting journalists to gather information on alleged war crimes committed by the forces of Khalifa Haftar, who won the endorsement of Trump this year for his attempt to wrest control of the Libyan capital.
The effort pits Trump and his former consultants on opposite sides of an increasingly deadly conflict that has now extended its lobbying reach to Washington.
The Government of National Accord is recognized by the United Nations but has struggled to assert control over the whole of the country.
According to documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the GNA signed a one-year, $1.5-million contract with Gotham Government Relations and Communications to “prepare and develop factual reports about Haftar’s human rights violations and crimes against Libyan civilians,” work on messaging to think tanks, and outline the GNA’s anti-terrorism work.
This week, the firm sent out a message “seeking freelance journalists to travel to Libya to report on the insurgence against the democratic government.”
The FARA filing was signed by David Schwartz, who represented Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen in the criminal case over payments to Stormy Daniels, the porn star, and by Bradley Gerstman.
Their New York lobbying firm worked closely with Trump companies and was involved in launching his campaign in 2015 at Trump Tower.
At the time, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that the firm was working with Extra Mile Casting to recruit extras to cheer “him in support of his announcement,” according to an email the news outlet obtained.
Hafter, who is based in the east of Libya, launched a campaign in early April to capture Tripoli, but his offensive quickly stalled. His forces are backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.
Trump added his endorsement in a phone call to Haftar in April, taking many of his senior officials by surprise.
On Tuesday, the human rights group Amnesty International said both sides in the conflict had launched indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas.
AI Report Brief
In the first in-depth field investigation across the frontline since fighting broke out on 4 April, the organization visited 33 air and ground strike sites in Tripoli and surrounding areas.
It unearthed evidence of potential war crimes by both the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), who have been fighting in and around the city.
Our on-the-ground investigation on both sides of the frontline revealed a systematic disregard for international law fuelled by the continued supply of weapons to both sides in violation of a UN arms embargo.
“Our on-the-ground investigation on both sides of the frontline revealed a systematic disregard for international law fuelled by the continued supply of weapons to both sides in violation of a UN arms embargo,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“Scores of civilians have been killed and injured as both sides use everything from Gaddafi-era unguided rockets to modern drone-launched guided missiles in attacks that could amount to war crimes,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Adviser on Arms and Military Operations.
First investigation on both sides of Tripoli frontline
Amnesty International investigators were on the ground in Libya from 1 to 14 August, and visited both sides of the conflict in and around Tripoli, Tajoura, Ain Zara, Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna.
They interviewed 156 residents, including survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims, as well as local officials, medical workers and members of militias.
Amnesty International experts in remote sensing, weapons and ordnance, photographic and video verification, and members of its Digital Verification Corps also carried out an open source investigation into many of the strikes.
GNA and LNA officials have not responded to questions Amnesty International sent about their strikes.
Civilians caught in the crossfire
According to UN statistics, the fighting over the last six months has killed and wounded more than 100 civilians – including dozens of detained migrants and refugees – and has displaced more than 100,000.
Air strikes, artillery barrages and shelling have struck civilian homes and other key infrastructure, including several field hospitals, a school, and a migrant detention centre, and have forced the closure of the Mitiga airport, Tripoli’s sole international air link.
Some of the attacks documented by Amnesty International were either indiscriminate or disproportionate – meaning they violated fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes.
In other cases, the presence of fighters at or near civilian homes and medical facilities endangered civilians there.
Children as young as two years old playing outside their homes, mourners attending a funeral, and ordinary people going about their daily activities were among those unlawfully killed or injured.
“What kind of war is this, killing civilians, families, in their homes? What can we do? May God help us,” one woman told Amnesty International.
Her husband, a 56-year-old father of six, was killed when a rocket struck his own bedroom where he was resting after returning home from playing football.
What kind of war is this, killing civilians, families, in their homes? What can we do? May God help us.
It was part of an indiscriminate attack launched by the LNA on the Abu Salim neighbourhood just before 11 pm on 16 April, 2019.
The salvo of six notoriously inaccurate ground-launched “Grad” rockets rained down over several city blocks, killing eight civilians, injuring at least four more, and leaving the survivors badly traumatized.
A GNA artillery attack on the densely populated civilian neighbourhood of Qasr bin Ghashir at around 12.15pm on 14 May, 2019, hit a three-storey building, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than a dozen.
Many people were moving about the area at the time to attend the funeral of a well-known neighbour.
“I was at home and my brother was standing outside on the street. The strike was massive; it sent a vehicle flying on top of another vehicle and for a moment everything was black.
I rushed outside and there were many neighbours dead and injured on the ground; there were severed body parts. It was a shocking sight.
Then we found my brother; he had injuries everywhere; he died. I couldn’t believe it,” the brother of 19-year-old Ahmad Fathi al-Muzughi, who died in the strike, told Amnesty International.
GNA air strikes in Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna have also hit civilian homes and infrastructure, utilizing FAB-500ShL unguided “parachute” bombs. With a blast radius of over 800m, this weapon is completely inappropriate for use in urban areas.
Airport and field hospitals attacked
Mitiga Airport – for months Tripoli’s only functioning airport – is now closed after being repeatedly targeted by LNA attacks. Nearby civilian homes and a school have also been struck in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks.
Amnesty International experts examined craters and munitions fragments at several of these strike sites, pointing to the use of unguided, large explosive weapons.
LNA attacks have also damaged or destroyed several ambulances and field hospitals used to treat wounded fighters.
Medical workers and facilities – including those treating sick or wounded fighters – have special protection under international humanitarian law and should not be targeted.
Amnesty International has found that GNA fighters have used field hospitals and medical facilities for military purposes, thereby rendering them vulnerable to attacks.
The deadliest such attack was a missile strike on a field hospital near the closed Tripoli International Airport on 27 July 2019 that killed five medics and rescuers and injured eight more.
Based on Blue Arrow 7 munition fragments found at the site and other evidence, Amnesty International determined that the strike was launched from a Chinese Wing Loong drone – which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been operating on behalf of the LNA.
The organization also established that the facility was not marked as a medical facility and had also been used by fighters for eating and other purposes.
UN arms embargo violated
Despite a comprehensive UN arms embargo in place since 2011, the UAE and Turkey have been supporting the LNA and GNA, respectively, through illicit arms transfers and direct military support.
“The international community must uphold the UN arms embargo, which Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and other countries have flagrantly violated,” said Brian Castner.
The international community must uphold the UN arms embargo, which Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and other countries have flagrantly violated.
“All sides must take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians in line with the laws of war and investigate the conduct of their forces. A Commission of Inquiry should be put in place to pave the way for justice and reparation for the victims and their families,” said Donatella Rovera.
“Members of the UN Human Rights Council should work together to establish this mechanism as a matter of urgency, which could determine responsibility for violations and preserve evidence of crimes.”