Libya’s NTC shackled by prisoner overload

With no judicial system to count on, council must decide fate of thousands of enemy fighters and suspected mercenaries.

Humanitarian agencies are calling on the NTC to ensure fair trials and treatment for thousands of prisoners [Al Jazeera]

The detention of thousands of suspected mercenaries and enemy fighters has left Libya’s new government facing crowded prisons and concerns from rights groups that inmates may suffer unfair trials and mistreatment.

The detentions have continued in recent days even as the fighting for Tripoli has mostly ended. Yet the influx of inmates has become a growing problem for the National Transition Council (NTC) and perhaps its toughest test since seizing power from Muammar Gaddafi and his army.

The NTC must decide how to treat those who fought for Gaddafi, and how to ensure that migrant Sub-Saharan workers are not arrested or abused on suspicions of having been recruited as mercenaries.

“Our concerns are the wide-scale roundups and detentions that are creating a climate of fear,” said Samuel Cheung, a senior protection officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Tripoli. 

He said that many migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa “are afraid of moving around in the streets”.

In recent days, fighters said they had conducted sweeps through the capital and acted on informants’ tips to carry out the targeted arrests of ex-regime members.

The arrests of confirmed Gaddafi loyalists, however, have been limited. Some former high-ranking officials claimed they turned themselves in, including Abdelati Obeidi, former foreign minister, and Jibril Kadiki, former deputy commander of Gaddafi’s air defence forces.

Mercenaries or migrants?

With the Libyan court system yet to reconvene, how to deal with the prisoners remains a question.

“There isn’t actually a proper judicial process. They don’t give them court dates. They don’t give them lawyers, not just yet,” Abdul Busin, spokesman for the military police, said.

“But they do differentiate between mercenaries and migrant workers. They try to as much as possible.”

Busin could not confirm exactly how many suspected mercenaries and regime loyalists had been arrested or how many of the prisoners are foreigners.

He said the NTC had established two official detention centres at former government prisons in Mitiga Airbase and the Tajoura district of east Tripoli.  Busin said he did not know how many prisoners the NTC was holding.

There are likely other prisoners scattered across Tripoli, its outskirts and around the country. Al Jazeera recently visited a small police station in the Fernaj neighbourhood that was holding dozens of men, 19 of whom identified themselves as sub-Saharan migrants.
Other migrants squatting at an abandoned harbor in the west Tripoli neighbourhood of Sidi Bilal said some men had been arrested after venturing out of the camp in search of food. Amnesty International witnessed men being treated at Tripoli Medical Centre who were forcibly taken from their beds and arrested by NTC fighters.

Abdelmajid Mlegta, the Tripoli security committee member responsible for a part of western Tripoli, said 300 inmates were being held at the National Oil Institute (NOI) alone.

Mlegta and other officials expressed confidence that many of those they are holding fought for Gaddafi.
Yet the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that none of the prisoners held by the NTC are mercenaries.

“The ICRC is not aware of any foreign nationals who participated in the fighting who meet strict conditions to be deemed mercenaries under international humanitarian law,” Soaade Messoudi, ICRC communications co-ordinator in Libya, said.

“These people must therefore receive the same treatment as any other person deprived of his freedom in relation to this conflict.”

Messoudi said that civilians who represent a “serious security threat” could be subject to administrative detention in the framework of a non-international armed conflict, but that they must be granted judicial guarantees and regular review of their status.

“Some people are detained just because they have a darker skin colour,” she said.

NTC notified

Messoudi said ICRC workers had met 135 prisoners in the past four days and were negotiating access to more. The ICRC has raised the issue at the “highest levels” of the NTC, she said.

“We call on the authorities who hold the people to treat them correctly from the moment of their arrest, to have them gathered in appropriate and identified detention facilities, and to allow the ICRC access to all the detainees,” she said.

The issue clearly makes the NTC uncomfortable. To show the NTC’s efforts to ensure fairness for detainees, Mlegta brought journalists on Sunday to see 57 Somali migrants at the NOI who were to be handed over to Cheung’s UN team for resettling in Tripoli.

But even these migrants told Al Jazeera that they had been arrested on suspicions of being mercenaries. In a separate room, NTC fighters were holding 32 men from the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania who were still being accused of fighting for Gaddafi and were not released.

Mlegta showed journalists jewelry and money orders bound for Senegal to prove the men’s origin, but there was no indication of military activity. The men told Al Jazeera that they were painters, electricians, and unskilled construction workers who had been rounded up on Eid al-Fitr and simply wanted to go home.

Ibrahim Jadama, a 23-year-old Gambian who said he had worked in Libya for 11 months installing air conditions, said the men had only been asked why they fought for Gaddafi, an allegation they denied.

“I don’t know what we are staying for. We are tired here. We are innocent,” he said.

Busin said NTC officials do their best to differentiate between migrant workers and mercenaries.

“A lot of migrants work for families here, so the families vouch for them,” he said.

Even so, he raised the example of a man from Mali who had been caught two days before with a passport dating his entry into Libya as June 15. At the time, Busin said, the Malian embassy in Tripoli was closed.

“You don’t get migrant workers traveling into a country that’s a war zone. You only get them travelling out,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera