The extremist armed group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has unlawfully executed at least 49 people in its Libyan stronghold of Sirte since February 2015, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Those killed, by means such as decapitating and shooting, include captive fighters, political opponents, and people ISIS accused of “spying,” “sorcery,” and “insulting God.”
The 41-page report, “‘We Feel We Are Cursed’: Life under ISIS in Sirte, Libya,” also finds that ISIS is inflicting severe hardship on the local population by diverting food, medicine, fuel, and cash, along with homes it seized from residents who fled, to fighters and functionaries it has amassed in the Mediterranean port city. As the de facto government in Sirte, ISIS has the duty to ensure that all residents are able to exercise their basic human rights, including the rights to food and health.
“As if beheading and shooting perceived enemies isn’t enough, ISIS is causing terrible suffering in Sirte even for Muslims who follow its rules,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher. “While the world’s attention is focused on atrocities in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is also getting away with murder in Libya.”
The 49 executions by ISIS in Sirte city and outlying areas that Human Rights Watch documented followed largely secret proceedings that negate the most basic fair-trial standards. ISIS also has kidnapped and disappeared dozens of Libyan militia fighters, many of whom are presumed dead, exiled Sirte city councilmen and fighters from groups opposing ISIS told Human Rights Watch.
The murder of civilians, or wounded or captive fighters, by members of a party to an armed conflict is a war crime, as is executing people without a fair trial by a regular court. The nature and scale of ISIS’s unlawful executions and other acts in Libya also may amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 former and current Sirte residents in March 2016, in Misrata, a coastal city 240 kilometers west of Sirte, as well as by telephone and email. They included relatives of people ISIS killed or detained, as well as exiled local officials and members of rival armed groups. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Misrata government and security officials and foreign-based Libya security analysts, among others, and crossed-checked information against sources including media reports and videos of ISIS acts in Sirte.
The Sirte residents described scenes of horror – public beheadings, corpses in orange jumpsuits hanging from scaffolding in what they referred to as “crucifixions,” and masked fighters snatching men from their beds in the night. They said morality police aided by informants patrolled the streets, threatening, fining, or flogging men for smoking, listening to music, or failing to ensure their wives and sisters were covered in loose black abayas, and hauling boys and men into mosques for prayer and religion classes.
“Ahlam,” 30, who had come to Misrata for health care, cried as she said she and her family would have to return to Sirte:
Life in Sirte is unbearable. Everyone is living in fear. They are killing innocent people. There are no groceries, the hospital has no doctors or nurses, there is no medicine. …There are spies on every street. Most people have left but we are trapped. We don’t have enough money to leave.
ISIS also is looting and destroying homes of perceived enemies, more than a dozen residents said. The group also closed shops specializing in lingerie or Western clothing, they said.
ISIS began taking over Sirte in February 2015. By August, it controlled the entire city, including the port, air base, main power station, and radio station, along with all local government offices and finances, creating its biggest stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has set up at least three prisons in Sirte, including one in a former preschool. The group has allowed communications with the outside world only through ISIS-run call centers, and shut all banks but one, which is open only to its members, former residents said.
Classes have been suspended at Sirte University since late 2015, when teachers and students stopped attending after ISIS banned history and law instruction, and ordered separate shifts for male and female students. ISIS has patrolled primary and secondary schools and quizzed the students on Islamic law, former residents said.
Fighting since 2014 between militant factions supporting two rival governments, one to the east and one to the west, has left governing institutions in a state of near-collapse. A third, United Nations-brokered “unity” government has yet to gain authority. The United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France are reported to be preparing a military campaign against ISIS in Libya. In May 2016, rival Libyan armed forces began separate mobilizations for an advance on Sirte.
All parties to the Libya conflict must take all feasible measures to protect civilians from harm, in accordance with the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. Libyan authorities, to the extent that is currently possible, and countries able to exercise criminal jurisdiction should take immediate steps to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for atrocities by ISIS and other parties. Member countries should increase funding to the International Criminal Court so it can pursue further investigations into ongoing serious crimes by all sides in Libya.
The UN Human Rights Council should make it a priority to appoint an independent expert or create another mechanism to document serious, ongoing abuses by all parties in Libya, as well as the command structure of ISIS, with the aim of deterrence and accountability. The UN Security Council should impose sanctions on members of ISIS and others found responsible for serious crimes in Libya – including those who intentionally finance or otherwise assist abuses – while ensuring appropriate due process. International parties have repeatedly failed to act on their promises to identify and punish those responsible for serious crimes in Libya.
“Instead of issuing empty threats, international players should keep their promises to identify and punish those responsible for serious crimes in Libya,” Tayler said. “Failure to act will only lead to more civilians falling victim to horrific crimes by groups including ISIS.”