I was returning by taxi to the hotel I was staying in Tripoli with an Argentine friend when, unexpectedly, I understood the characteristics of the regime of former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. We had started talking to the driver who, in perfect English, answered our questions. When he heard we were Argentines his face lit up and he started talking excitedly about the Argentine former soccer player Diego Maradona. Undoubtedly, the soccer star's name, with its tinsel achieved as a player and despite his personal chiaroscuro, remains a magnet around the world.
At one point, as we passed by a military barracks, my friend asked the driver if Khadafy lived there. Immediately our driver had a marked change of mood: his apparent friendliness transmuted into an awkward nervousness and he became almost hostile to us. Stunned, we tried to return to the conversation about Maradona, but were unsuccessful.
More effective than a lesson in politics, this incident highlighted the unpredictable terror the Libyan dictator was able to cause in the population and explains that under a calm exterior, a climate of oppression and terror was reigning then in Tripoli.
With the fall of the Libyan dictator and his replacement by a National Transitional Council (NTC) headed by Mustafa Abu Jalil, there were expectations that the terror and abuses of the Qaddafi era had finally ended. Not so, say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, whose statements are corroborated by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an organization which has decided to stop its operations in Misrata, due to the torture of detainees being carried out there.
This organization claims that several of the patients that had been treated for torture were sent again to interrogation centers where they were tortured again. MSF general director stated, “Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.” MSF claims of torture in Misrata have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, which has been monitoring prison conditions in Misrata since last April.
In a 25 January presentation to the UN Security Council Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the human rights situation in Libya “…remains of concern and requires increased vigilance and sustained assistance from the international community.” According to Mrs. Pillay, the fact that the Interim Government doesn’t have effective control over the revolutionary brigades has human rights effects in several areas.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been most active in overseeing the conditions of detainees in Libya. Between March and December of 2011 the ICRC visited over 8,500 detainees in approximately 60 detention centers. Although the majority of detainees were Qaddafi loyalists, the ICRC found that there were also large numbers of detainees from Sub-Saharan countries who acted as mercenaries for the Qaddafi regime during the revolution.
According to Amnesty International, torture is carried out by official military and security units and by numerous armed militias operating outside of any legal framework. Many detainees died while in custody, after being subjected to different kinds of torture including beatings, use of electro-shocks with live wires and being hit with metal chains and bars. As Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International Senior Crisis Adviser in Libya recently stated, “After all the promises to get detention centres under control, it is horrifying to find that there has been no progress to stop the use of torture.”
Amnesty International states that both the police and the judiciary remain dysfunctional in the country, with several unofficial groups carrying out interrogations in detention centres outside the control of the judiciary, a situation that needs to be urgently addressed.
Although Libya’s new government is facing considerable challenges on all fronts, unless it ensures that rule of the law and respect for human rights, it runs the risk of descending into chaos. And a possible return to the dire conditions that Libyans thought they had already overcome.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.