Accessibility links

Libyan Militias Accused of Targeting African Migrants

  • Joe DeCapua

African migrant workers whom rebels accused of being mercenaries seen detained in a military base in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

African migrant workers whom rebels accused of being mercenaries seen detained in a military base in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

A human rights group says armed militias in Libya are fueling instability and committing rights abuses with impunity. Amnesty International says the militias are targeting suspected supporters of former leader Moammar Gadhafi, as well as African migrants and refugees.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s senior crisis response advisor, spent several months in Libya looking into alleged abuses by militias.

“One has to do with detention, unlawful detention. Basically people are being seized and detained by militias, who have neither the authority to do so and they’re keeping people in places which are also not authorized as detention centers. The pattern is they keep people for a few days, torture them and then hand them over to kind of more recognized, more semi-official detention centers,” she said.

Amnesty reported that detainees said they had been “suspended in contorted positions; beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains and bars and wooden sticks.” Some said they had also received electric shocks.

The other area of concern, she said, is the “hunting down and taking revenge” on people or communities that militias suspected of supporting Gadhafi.

“They take them out of their homes. Burn down their houses,” she said.


During the fighting to topple Gadhafi last year, sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees became targets of stigma, discrimination and violence. Many accused them of being mercenaries fighting on behalf of the former Libyan leader.

“At the beginning of the crisis, there was the vastly exaggerated propaganda for which the highest level of the National Transitional Council should take some responsibility because they largely contributed to that unfounded propaganda,” she said.

Reports circulated of tens of thousands of sub-Saharan mercenaries.

“Today we know that that was not the case. There might have been some for sure, but we’re talking very small numbers. That irresponsible propaganda had the direct consequences of having African migrants being hunted down and killed and hanged off bridges and public buildings by the then rebels,” she said.

Rovera said that “problem has subsided” because the International Organization for Migration spent much of last year evacuating sub-Saharans out of Libya. But she says now there’s a new problem.

“People come through Libya on their way, hopefully, to Europe. And they get stuck in Libya. At the moment, their cases are being dealt with in a fairly arbitrary fashion. Most of them are there illegally, unauthorized, and nothing much happens. Others get detained and they, too, get tortured,” said Rovera.

Reported torture deaths

“We’ve had more than reports. We investigated about 12 cases and I know that there are more, but that’s the cases we’ve looked into since September. What is of great concern is that not even in cases like that have the authorities initiated any investigation. I’m not aware of a single case where the authorities have investigated. It’s this kind of impunity that makes militias feel that they are above the law because indeed they are at the moment. And that encourages further abuses,” she said.

Rovera said Amnesty has frequently made its concerns known to Libyan authorities.

“Every time they say that they will investigate. What is then lacking is the investigations themselves. You know, the promises have been there. The fulfillment of those promises is for now no.’ she said.

However, the Amnesty adviser said it’s fair to say the current authorities are facing many challenges. “It’s not easy to take the guns off the streets and we understand that. The militias are becoming more entrenched in their above the law attitude. The verdict is that unless action is going to be taken, these kinds of abuses are not going to stop magically by themselves.”