After the failure of his military offensive against the Government of National Unity (GNA) in 2020, Khalifa Haftar managed to maintain his grip on a large part of the country. In particular by silencing dissenting voices. Jeune Afrique met witnesses and victims in exile.
In the territories controlled by Khalifa Haftar ‘s forces , “all those who speak out or express criticism are assassinated or kidnapped, dozens of activists have disappeared”, denounces Ali Alaspli, director of Libyan Crimes Watch, an NGO based in UK.
Last known victim to date: Mansour Atti, the head of the Red Crescent in Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi.
The young man languished for ten months in a secret prison. Internal security would not have appreciated his mobilizing civil society to guarantee the transparency of the presidential elections scheduled for December 24.
On April 2, more than three months after the cancellation of the ballot, he was finally released.
MP Siham Sergiwa, who opposed Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, has still not reappeared since her abduction in July 2019. Those close to her believe that she met the same fate as Hanane al-Barassi, a famous women’s rights activist who exposed the corruption of the Haftar clan.
A few weeks after the October 2020 ceasefire, Hanane al-Barassi was shot dead in broad daylight in one of Benghazi’s busiest shopping streets.
Since then, “the only people who have been imprisoned in connection with the case are his children”, point out the United Nations experts in their March 2022 report.
Torture and military trials
Within his military coalition, which has been rallied by former cadres of the Gaddafi regime, the Marshal does not tolerate contradiction any longer.
Several former officers who fled to the West were tortured and sexually abused, according to an Amnesty International team who met them in February 2022.
“They say they were kidnapped and held until they agreed to say ‘Haftar is my master’, simply because they disagreed with Aguila Saleh [the Tobruk-based parliament leader, Haftar’s political ally ] or denounced the level reached by corruption”, testifies Hussein Baoumi, specialist in Libya for the NGO.
On paper, Libyan institutions are no longer divided in two since the creation of a new Government of National Unity (GUN) a year ago.
Based in Tripoli, it was approved by the House of Representatives in Tobruk, in the east, on March 10, 2021. But in practice, Haftar’s armed forces retained control of the security apparatus in the territories that they occupy, that is to say in Cyrenaica (East) and part of the south of the country.
Unlike the West, where a myriad of competing militias share the security pie, Khalifa Haftar has based his power on a pyramid system, inspired by the Egyptian military regime.
SINCE 2018, MILITARY COURTS HAVE HANDED DOWN AT LEAST 210 DEATH SENTENCES
He chose one of his closest confidants, Aoun el-Ferjani, the former head of Gaddafi’s services, to lead the control authority in charge of the police and military prisons.
Two of his sons, Saddam and Khaled Haftar, command the two main brigades of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (FAAL), alongside other members of his extended family, promoted to generals.
Since the end of the military operation “Dignity” against Islamist groups (2014-2017), the military courts in the region have visibly served to cover the repression with a veneer of legality.
Hundreds of civilians have been prosecuted and convicted in sham trials under the 2017 law that allows civilians to be tried for “terrorism”. Understand: anyone who deviates from the marshal’s line.
A journalist was thus sentenced to 15 years in prison, a first since the 2011 revolution, before being granted amnesty two and a half years later, in September 2021. Since 2018, military courts have handed down at least 210 prison sentences. dead.
But the scorched earth policy is beginning to show its limits as inflation soars and living conditions in Benghazi, the country’s second city, have become increasingly difficult.
“Haftar’s militias control the markets, multiply robberies and extort the population without ever being worried, to the point that former fervent supporters change their minds.
The fight against terrorism seems to them more and more like a hollow slogan to allow Haftar to stay in power, “says a refugee lawyer in Tunisia, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against his family who remained. in Benghazi.
A study carried out by the Libyan NGO Moomken indicates that Khalifa Haftar only received, in February 2022, only 10% favorable opinions in the south of Libya and 30% in the East, as much as his rival, the Prime Minister of the GNA, Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba.
The slightest sign of anger is also tracked down by the authorities. In the small town of Al-Bayda, an Internet user was arrested after filming a demonstration calling for the resignation of Parliament and the Council of State, on February 24.
Another has been incarcerated in Barqa for three months for sharing a Facebook post denouncing the liquidity crisis which deprives Libyans of their salaries paid into bank accounts.
In March 2022, Homeland Security, backed by the commander of a Salafist battalion, Nasser al-Muhalhal al-Ferjani, arrested eleven citizens following a protest in the coastal city of Sirte.
Cooperation of Salafist militias
After recruiting the Madkhali Salafist militia Al-Tawhid to fight opponents and Islamist groups, Haftar integrated its members into his security forces. Founded within the army, this militia with an ultra-rigorous ideology has since imposed its agenda of religious intolerance. Books of foreign literature deemed contrary to Islamic values were seized. Mixed outings of academics have been prevented, reports an ex-prosecutor.
“The Salafists have infiltrated the entire security apparatus and are now in the majority”, assures a refugee activist in Europe, detained for several months in the desert by the Sobil Salam faction, in the south-east of the country, and accused “of changing the religion Libyans” because he was cooperating with international organizations.
THE SITUATION OF CIVIL SOCIETY IS QUITE UNFAVOURABLE, IN THE EAST AS WELL AS IN THE WEST”
This well-oiled rhetoric of the Gaddafi era – demonizing the West and its “collaborators” to deflect criticism aimed at power – is reused at will by the internal security agency, placed under the command of the armed forces.
A targeted activist describes “a climate of terror amplified by social networks, all the last activists present in the East are hiding”.
“The situation of civil society is quite unfavorable, in the East as in the West”, summarizes Elie Abouaoun, director of the Middle East and North Africa department at the American Institute for Peace.
The researcher, however, sees a bright spot through the emergence of an alliance between Khalifa Haftar and Fathi Bachagha, the former interior minister of the government based in Tripoli.
Last February, the man who had led the resistance against Haftar’s final offensive sealed a government agreement with the right arm of his ex-enemy, the head of parliament Aguila Saleh.
Even if the current Prime Minister Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba refuses to give up his place, “this new alliance is positive, because it makes it possible to go beyond the East-West confrontation which has lasted for 10 years.
Political groups, tribal and community leaders within the two regions have explicitly supported either Bachagha or Dabaiba, outside of regional divides,” said Elie Abouaoun.
On the contrary, among human rights defenders, this unlikely alliance arouses fear of an extension of Haftar’s authoritarian hold.