Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.
A shadowy Libyan armed group accused of unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention and enslavement, with alleged links to Russia’s Wagner Group, has been forcibly returning refugees with the help of European authorities, a new investigation has found.
On several occasions this year, GPS coordinates released by Europe’s border agency Frontex have ended up in the hands of the Tareq Bin Zayed (TBZ), allowing militiamen to haul back hundreds of people at a time from European waters to eastern Libya.
The pullbacks described by witnesses, which often involve violence, appear to be illegal. Under international law, refugees cannot be returned to unsafe countries such as Libya, where they are at risk of serious ill-treatment.
The joint investigation by Al Jazeera, Lighthouse Reports, the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ), Malta Today, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel, involved months of researching the latest pullbacks, including extensive interviews with witnesses, experts and officials.
The TBZ pullbacks from European waters began in May. Al Jazeera and its partners investigated five that took place this year, which overall saw hundreds being returned and many abused. The TBZ is also known to drag people back from Libyan waters.
The pattern that emerged suggests that European powers are working directly and indirectly with the TBZ, amid their efforts to curb refugee arrivals.
These institutions are well aware of the TBZ’s alleged human rights abuses but do nothing to stop the brigade acting as a coastguard partner, even though it is closely tied to Khalifa Haftar, the renegade general at the helm of the eastern Libyan administration which is not recognised by the international community, including the European Union.
The bloc also understands the TBZ’s connections to Wagner, the Russian mercenary force accused of atrocities from Africa to Ukraine.
The investigation found that Malta appears to be playing a direct role. During one incident in August, an audio recording strongly suggests that a Maltese air force pilot relayed the coordinates of a boat in distress to the TBZ.
Several refugees who have been intercepted by the group told Al Jazeera and its partners that TBZ militiamen have tortured, beat, and shot at them. One said they witnessed a killing. Others, having paid vast sums to smugglers, said TBZ forced them to pay ransom or made them work for their freedom.
"Frontex and national rescue coordination centres should never provide information to any Libyan actors,” said Nora Markard, an expert on international law at Germany’s University of Munster. "Frontex knows who TBZ is and what this militia does.
"What the militia is doing is more of a kidnapping than a rescue. You only have to imagine pirates announcing that they will deal with a distress case.”