Armed groups in Tripoli linked with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) used lethal force to disperse largely peaceful anti-corruption protests in late August 2020 and arbitrarily detained, tortured, and disappeared people in the capital, Human Rights Watch said today.
Between August 23 and 29, armed groups in Tripoli arbitrarily detained at least 24 protesters, including a journalist covering the event, beat some of them, and used machine guns and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to disperse protesters, wounding some and allegedly killing one.
The groups included the GNA Interior Ministry-linked Al-Nawasi Brigade under the command of Mustafa Qaddour, the Special Deterrence Force under Abdelraouf Kara, and the armed group known as General Security, under Emad Al-Tarabulsi.
“These armed groups used heavy weapons and armored vehicles to muzzle dissent,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Tripoli authorities should waste no time holding accountable the armed groups members and commanders who detained and abused mostly peaceful protesters.”
Large-scale demonstrations kicked off in Tripoli, Misrata, and Zawiyah on August 23. A newly established grassroots youth movement, Harak Al-Shabab 23/08, organized the protests to criticize authorities in the east and west for “unbearable” living conditions.
Protesters railed against power cutoffs that can last up to three days and demanded social justice and elections. Protests also began on August 24 in Zliten and Khoms, two cities east of Tripoli, and in Sebha and Obari in the south.
Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha condemned the violent conduct of armed groups, including kidnapping and forcibly disappearing protesters, and was subsequently temporarily suspended.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 people about the protests and violent response, including protesters, relatives and friends of protesters, journalists, lawyers, and activists, and reviewed photographs and videos of security forces using excessive force that were sent directly to researchers or obtained from social media.
The protests in Tripoli and elsewhere were largely peaceful, three witnesses who attended one or more of them told Human Rights Watch. The Tripoli-based armed groups linked with the GNA responded by forcibly rounding up protesters and detaining them, initially in undisclosed locations, relatives of those who were detained and subsequently released said. In some cases, family members only found out where their detained relative had been held after the release.
Since August 24, armed groups have been quietly releasing detainees, and the current number of detained protesters in Tripoli remains unknown.
According to a media report from September 6, the General Prosecutor’s office announced that 13 protesters had been released and that “around 8 remained in detention over suspected participation in riots.” They added that doctors had examined some of the injured protesters but did not say how many people in total were detained or injured.
Criminal justice authorities should promptly present all remaining detainees to a judge to determine the legality of their detention and should either charge them promptly with a crime or release them, as detention before trial should be the exception not the rule, Human Rights Watch said.
Relatives and friends of two released protesters who were held for at least four days at a prison in Mitiga Military Base in Tripoli said both men reported being repeatedly beaten and forced to sign pledges that they would not participate in future demonstrations. The prison is run by the Special Deterrence Force under the command of Khalid Al-Buni.
A relative of one of the Harak Al-Shabab 23/08 organizers, who was arrested on August 23 by unidentified armed men in Tripoli with six others after they had left the protest area, said that the family had no contact with their detained relative and did not know the place of detention. The detainee was subsequently released on September 6.
Three witnesses said that the Nawasi Brigade, which controls the perimeter around Martyrs’ Square, was primarily responsible for using machine guns and heavy weapons to disperse protesters and arbitrarily arresting protesters there on August 23 and on subsequent days.
Two protesters said that police forces in Martyrs’ Square on August 23 and thereafter did not intervene to protect them. Video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch corroborates this allegation, with a video posted on Facebook on August 23 showing police cars parked along the square as armed groups fired heavy weapons and machine guns to disperse protesters while the police made no attempt to protect them.
On August 26, the GNA Presidential Council imposed a four-day curfew, citing a spread of Covid-19. It extended the curfew for 10 days on August 30, banning outside movement from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., which some protesters say they saw as an attempt to prevent them from demonstrating and have mostly ignored.
Years of armed conflict and neglect have severely damaged Libya’s health system. On September 8, the National Center for Disease Control announced a record 1,000 new infections in the country. The World Health Organization declared Libya to be at high risk from Covid-19 and said that the country had weak capacities to detect and respond to the virus.
The authorities can restrict public gatherings and freedom of movement based on legitimate public health concerns around Covid-19, the United Nations expert on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association has said, but the restrictions must be “necessary and proportionate.” In addition, “the [health] crisis is no justification for excessive force to be used when dispersing assemblies.”
Three protesters interviewed said that the protests they saw on August 23 in Martyrs’ Square were largely peaceful, but that some demonstrators attacked one or more cars with stones or other objects, damaging at least one police vehicle. None of the witnesses who attended protests between August 23 and 29 saw any protesters use firearms.
Violence by some protesters, including stone-throwing, that is not an immediate threat to life, does not justify the authorities’ use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said. Armed groups affiliated with the GNA and assuming security roles in Tripoli should immediately end the use of machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and anti-aircraft weapons to disperse protesters who pose no threat to their or others’ lives. The General Prosecutor’s Office should open an independent investigation into the abuses and make public the results.
International donors, most notably Turkey, which is supplying arms and ammunition to the GNA and its affiliated armed groups, should ensure they are not funding or contributing to this abuse.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force. The police should adhere to a principle of measured escalation of force. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act proportionately to the threat posed and seek to minimize damage and injury.
“Political divisions and security concerns do not justify armed groups coming at protesters with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons to intimidate them and disperse protests,” Salah said. “Tripoli authorities should investigate and publicly disclose the names of the armed groups and commanders who failed to comply with basic policing standards and hold them to account.”