Armed groups in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi are preventing thousands of internally displaced families from returning to their homes in that city, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. The armed groups, some loyal to Libyan National Army forces (LNA), accuse the families broadly of “terrorism” or “supporting terrorism.”
The LNA, headed by General Khalifa Haftar, is allied with one of two authorities vying for legitimacy and territorial control in Libya. Since May 2014, when Haftar announced the start of Operation Dignity to root out “terrorists” from Benghazi, an estimated 13,000 families have fled Benghazi for elsewhere in Libya or abroad. Displaced people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said LNA-linked groups have seized their property and tortured, forcibly disappeared, and arrested family members who remained in the city. If proven such attacks on civilians would amount to violations of the laws of war. If committed with criminal intent, they would be war crimes.
“General Haftar needs to act resolutely to end the attacks on civilians in Benghazi,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Senior LNA commanders who have stood by since 2014 while their forces torture and disappear people and plunder their property can and should be held to account by local or international courts.”
As a result of armed conflicts in the country and political divisions, central authority collapsed and subsequently three competing governments emerged, now reduced to two. These are the Interim Government based in the eastern city of al-Bayda, which is aligned with the LNA and supported by the House of Representatives, and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, backed by the UN Security Council. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most of the country. Basic services have collapsed.
The armed groups in Benghazi are preventing at least 3,700 families from returning to the city, according to the Benghazi Committee, a body based in Tripoli that coordinates relief support to displaced people from eastern Libya.
On January 6, 2018, Haftar issued a statement denouncing the looting, destruction and appropriation of private property as well as the forced displacement of people from Benghazi. He instructed forces under the LNA to facilitate the return of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), unless there were “legal justifications.”
Children displaced by conflict in Benghazi attend schools in Misrata, Libya, November, 2014.
Human Rights Watch conducted 27 interviews with displaced people in October and November 2017 in the western cities of Tripoli and Misrata, including 24 in person and three by phone. Some of those interviewed said their relatives had fought against the LNA. Others said none of their relatives had participated in the hostilities, even if they were not in support of the LNA.
Human Rights Watch said it also reviewed photographs, death certificates, medical reports, and burial documents provided by interviewees which appeared to corroborate their allegations of the abuse of their relatives who remained behind in Benghazi. In one case a Human Rights Watch researcher observed the injuries and marks on the body of a former Benghazi resident who said an LNA-linked group had tortured him in October 2017.
All of those interviewed said they were unable to return to their homes in Benghazi due to threats by LNA-linked groups. Most said they had left Benghazi in October 2014, after armed confrontations intensified between the LNA and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an alliance of armed groups opposed to the LNA. Some said they had been prevented from returning after receiving direct warnings from pro-LNA armed groups to stay away, or after pro-LNA armed groups attacked their relatives as a warning.
In 18 interviews, people said armed groups affiliated with the LNA in Benghazi seized their property on the pretext that they or their families were linked to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In 20 interviews, people said armed groups looted, deliberately destroyed, or set fire to property and businesses.
Some relatives of people accused of being anti-LNA, who stayed in Benghazi or who tried to return, have been attacked by LNA-affiliated armed groups, often merely on the suspicion of being anti-LNA or anti-Hiftar.
In five interviews, people said that at least one relative had been arrested and tortured in Benghazi by LNA or LNA-affiliated groups, due to their membership in families targeted by these groups. Two of these torture victims were arrested and ill-treated after trying to return to Benghazi, in 2016 and 2017. Six interviewees said that the LNA or its affiliates arrested or kidnapped a relative in Benghazi who was later found dead. This includes five men among 36 men killed in a mass extra-judicial killing in the eastern city of Alabyar.
Hussein Bin Hmeid, a member of the Benghazi municipal council that has operated “in exile” in Tripoli and Misrata since the onset of hostilities in 2014, told Human Rights Watch in Misrata on October 28 that none of the governments competing to control Libya had offered any financial support to those forcibly displaced from Benghazi. He said while the Benghazi council had registered 12,900 displaced families, including 3,700 forcibly displaced, the figure was most likely much higher, as many people did not register with the council.
He said that displaced families have faced discrimination and many hurdles such as trying to access money in Benghazi banks, and getting jobs or their salaries, as well as health care and education.
Members of the Benghazi Commission met with Human Rights Watch in Tripoli on October 25. They said that the commission had distributed food parcels for 7,000 displaced families from Benghazi each month and paid the rents for some of them. Tamim al-Ghariani and Abdel Mon’em Hassan, commission members, said they received funding from private benefactors, not from the Government of National Accord.
Given the serious crimes committed in Libya and the challenges facing the authorities, the International Criminal Court’s mandate to investigate the worst crimes in Libya since 2011 remains essential to ending impunity in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
On January 27, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the LNA leadership inviting comments on allegations of LNA-linked groups’ involvement in forced displacement, appropriation of private property, torture, threats and disappearances of Benghazi residents, The LNA has yet to respond.
“The authorities in Libya are not only obligated to allow civilians who are forcibly displaced to go home, but they should also ensure that Benghazi residents can go back in security and are protected from reprisals,” Goldstein said.
The Status of Benghazi
In May 2014, Haftar announced the start of a military operation to root out “terrorism” from Benghazi. Nationwide general elections for the House of Representatives on June 25, 2014, failed to bring about consensus and were disrupted by armed groups that opposed them. The elections were also accompanied by violence that included the killing by unidentified armed groups, of Salwa Bughaighis, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist from Benghazi who had stood at the forefront of demonstrations against Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising.
In July, after the conflict spread to the western part of the country and armed clashes erupted in the capital, Tripoli, most members of the elected House of Representatives moved to the eastern city of Tobruk and convened the parliament there.
Military operations largely kicked off in Benghazi in October 2014 when LNA-aligned forces clashed with fighters affiliated with ISIS, which has since withdrawn from Benghazi, and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC).
On July 5, 2017, Haftar announced the complete “liberation” of Benghazi from holdout elements of the BRSC, although fighting in the downtown area of Sidi Khreibish, presumed to be the BRSC’s last bastion, only ended in January 2018.
Armed groups affiliated with the LNA control large swathes of eastern Libya, with the exception of Derna, which those groups are currently besieging, and parts of the southern region. GNA-aligned forces control the capital Tripoli, Misrata, towns in western Libya, and most of the western coastal region.
The LNA in eastern Libya consists of regular units and the army special forces. Various armed groups operating in the east have aligned since 2014 with the LNA, which provides them with funding, weapons, and uniforms. These armed groups include neighborhood militias and a militia known as the Avengers of Blood, whose family members were killed fighting “terrorists” in Benghazi. Some LNA units include adherents of the strict Salafist Madakhla ideology who view Haftar as their ruler to whom they owe obedience.