The Moroccan man had been stopped before at sea in his multiple attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe. But his most recent time was different. The Libyan force that intercepted the boat full of some 50 migrants was more brutal.
The armed men beat and humiliated the migrants, he recalled. They were then taken to a detention facility where for months and weeks they were severely beaten, abused and tortured. He said he was repeatedly beaten with rifle butts and whipped with rubber hoses.
Badges on their uniform showed the affiliation of the gunmen, he said: the Stabilization Support Authority.
The SSA, an umbrella group of militias, has risen to become one of the main forces carrying out Libya's European Union-aided effort to stop migrants from crossing to European shores. Though migrants have long been brutalized in Libya, rights groups and former detainees say the abuse is taking on a more organized and dangerous nature under this feared new body. And officials say it also is benefiting from EU support.
The SSA has come to rival in strength the official anti-migrant agencies like the coast guard and navy. But unlike them, it reports directly to Libya's Tripoli-based presidential council and is not subject to EU and U.N. scrutiny intended to prevent rights abuses.
More than a dozen migrants interviewed by the Associated Press told of how they were brutalized by the SSA while being held in its detention facility in the town of Maya on Tripoli's western outskirts. The migrants, fearing retaliation, spoke on condition of anonymity or that they be identified only by their first names. They were all trying to get out of Libya.
"All I want is to leave this hell," said Rabei, a 32-year-old Egyptian from a Nile Delta province, describing his feelings before his release earlier this year. He described repeatedly seeing guards beat migrants into unconsciousness, then drag them away. He doesn't know whether any of them are still alive.
The Stabilization Support Authority did not respond calls and messages from the AP seeking comment. Previously, the group and the Tripoli-based government dismissed allegations of abuses against migrants in statements following a report by the rights group Amnesty International.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East move through Libya trying to reach Europe. For years, Libyan militias have been notorious for involvement in human trafficking and for detaining migrants, abusing them and extorting money from them.
Most notorious is the SSA's detention center, set up in a complex that was once a state-run factory in the town of Maya. U.N. agencies and other groups working on migrants have no access to the site, according to spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, Safa Msehli.
Up to 1,800 migrants have been held there since its creation, Libya Crimes Watch estimates. Women and children among the detainees are held in a separate part of the prison, the group said.
Libya Crimes Watch and Amnesty International separately documented rampant abuses at Maya prison, including torture, rape, forced labor and forced prostitution, as well as severe overcrowding and lack of food and water.
Ramadan, an Egyptian recently released from Maya, recalled how one young Moroccan was severely beaten after being caught trying to escape. For a week, he was left in the cell, bleeding and his wounds festering as other migrants pleaded with guards to take him to a hospital.
Finally, the guards dragged him away. "He was still alive. We don't know what happened to him," Ramadan said.
Torn by civil war since 2011, Libya is divided between rival governments in the east and west, each backed by international patrons and innumerable armed militias on the ground.
In a bid to stem the flow of migrants, the European Union has given the government in Tripoli more than $500 million since 2015. The funds are intended to beef up Libya's coast guard, reinforce Libya's southern border and improve conditions for migrants in detention centers run by the Interior Ministry.
The EU and the U.N. are supposed to monitor the detention facilities to ensure migrants are properly treated. In reality, abuses have been rampant.
The SSA is not subject even to that nominal level of monitoring. It was created in January 2021 and recognized by the Tripoli-based government of the time, which mandated it to carry out a number of security tasks — including preventing illegal migration.
It is led by Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli, an infamous warlord known as "Gheniwa" who is accused by Amnesty International of war crimes and other serious rights violations over the past decade.
It is still funded by the Tripoli government, now headed by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, one of Libya's two rival administrations claiming to govern. In 2021, the government allocated the equivalent of around $9 million for the alliance. It has also given the SSA ad hoc payments, most recently one in February amounting to the equivalent of $28 million, according to government officials and Amnesty International.
A former head of the coast guard said the SSA indirectly draws money from the funds given by the European Union. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. EU officials did not respond the AP requests for comment on the SSA.
The group's operations are intermingled with the coast guard, officials from the navy and coast guard said. In the western town of Zawiya, for example, the coast guard unit "virtually belongs to them. It's a separate unit in name only," one navy official said.
SSA vessels are maintained by the navy, which benefits from the EU funds, another naval official said. He said that the SSA has also become involved in the continual coordination between Libyan naval authorities and the European border agency, Frontex.
In several cases, its fighters have shot and killed migrants at sea during interceptions of boats.
Two Egyptian migrants died earlier this year in Maya prison, according to migrants and activists. A report by U.N. experts documented torture and abuse at the Maya prison and said at least three people were abused to death as of December 2021. The report said the prison's chief, Mohamed al-Kabouti, was personally involved in beating detainees.
"They keep beating you for hours, with anything they have -- clubs, rifle butts, iron bars. Or a few of them just keep hammering at you with kicks and punches and rifle butts," recalled Rabei, the Egyptian migrant, who was held for three months until he could pay around $650 in ransom. "Eventually you just wish you were dead from all the beating."
El-Sayed, a Moroccan once held at Maya, described how he was repeatedly tortured and beaten with plastic hoses and electricity wires. The guards forced him to call his family to send money to secure his release. His relatives eventually scraped together 1,100 euros to buy his freedom.
"If you have money, you can secure your life, if you don't you will stay forever," he said.