Armed groups loyal to Libyan National Army forces (LNA) appear to have summarily executed dozens of men in the LNA-controlled town of al-Abyar, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
On October 26, 2017, local police forces discovered the bodies of 36 men, all of them executed, close to a main road south east of al-Abyar, 50 kilometers east of Benghazi. Authorities transferred the bodies to a hospital, where families came to identify them. Relatives of six of the victims told Human Rights Watch that the men had been arrested on various dates by armed groups loyal to the LNA in Benghazi or in other areas controlled by the LNA.
This incident comes after a series of unlawful killings and summary executions in Benghazi that prompted the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to issue an arrest warrant against an LNA special forces commander on August 15.
Following the discovery of the 36 bodies in al-Abyar, Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, the LNA chief, ordered the military prosecutor of the eastern region on October 28, to conduct an investigation . The LNA and the military prosecution have yet to announce any investigation results.
“The Libyan National Army’s pledges to conduct inquiries into repeated unlawful killings in areas under their control in eastern Libya have so far led nowhere,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The LNA will be condoning apparent war crimes if their pledge to investigate the gruesome discovery in al-Abyar proves to be another empty promise.”
Human Rights Watch met with relatives of two of the victims in Tripoli and interviewed relatives of four others by telephone in October and November. All of them said that their family member had been arrested earlier in 2017, some only two days before the bodies were found, and had not been heard from again.
All said their relative bore one or more gunshot wounds, and that their hands were tied behind their backs, based on information they obtained from family members who identified the bodies at the Benghazi Medical Center, also known as Hospital 1200. Most interviewees did not have access to a medical report. All relatives also said that armed groups from Benghazi prevented families from putting up tents in front of their Benghazi homes to receive guests during the traditional three-day mourning period.
The relatives said that all six victims were civilians seized from their homes, in the presence of their families, by armed groups linked with the LNA. None of the armed groups presented an arrest warrant. Human Rights Watch reviewed multiple lists containing a total of 25 names of the men found at al-Abyar, but could not verify which were civilians and which, if any, were fighters affiliated with forces opposing the LNA.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs of the bodies, including two apparent group photos of the victims, posted on social media sites by unidentified sources on October 26. The group photos show at least 35 bodies in an open field. Researchers also reviewed close-up photos of 23 of the victims and corroborated them with the group photos and with photos sent by relatives.
Most of the 23 victims photographed in close-up had their hands tied behind their backs with plastic handcuffs. Each was lying in what appeared to be a pool of blood. The majority had visible gunshot wounds to the head, neck or face.
Stefan Schmitt, a forensic investigator who reviewed the photos, said the injuries were consistent with executions at point blank range at the location where the bodies were discovered. The bodies appeared not to have been disturbed between the time of execution and the time of discovery. He said the photos were most likely taken within several hours of the killings, as the blood appeared not to have fully congealed.
The al-Abyar police chief, Col. Jalal al-Huweidi, spoke with Human Rights Watch by phone on November 27. He said that all 36 bodies were found at the same spot in al-Kassarat, a desert area southeast of al-Abyar. He said that his forces were alerted to the presence of the bodies, all of the people executed at the same spot, and had found them at around 1:30 p.m. on October 26. He said his forces, together with the Red Crescent, removed the bodies and transferred them to the hospital in Benghazi known as 1200, after the criminal investigation department and the attorney general’s office investigated the crime scene.
Human Rights Watch met with al-Siddiq al-Sur, head of investigations at the General Prosecutor’s office in Tripoli, on October 28, who said that 35 bodies were discovered in the location in al-Abyar and one more in the al-Qwarsha area in Benghazi. Al-Sur said his office had opened an investigation into the al-Abyar killings and was in contact with the Benghazi attorney general about it.
Armed conflict, insecurity, and political divisions have plagued Libya since May 2014, when General Hiftar declared war on “terrorism” in Benghazi and announced his Operation Dignity. As part of this operation, LNA-aligned forces battled fighters affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which has since withdrawn from Benghazi, and an alliance of militias and individuals known as the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC). Armed groups loyal to the LNA control large swathes of eastern Libya, with the exception of Derna, and some parts of the south.
Forces aligned with the LNA include regular army units, army special forces, neighborhood militias known as Sahawat, and a militia known as the Avengers of Blood or Katibat Awliya’ al-Dam, whose family members were killed fighting “terrorists” in Benghazi. Some LNA units include adherents of the strict Salafist Madakhla ideology that view Hiftar as their “ruler” to whom they owe “obedience.” On July 5, Hiftar announced the complete “liberation” of Benghazi from holdout elements of the BRSC, although fighting in the city’s downtown area of Sidi Khreibish continued until early November.
As a result of armed conflicts in both eastern and western Libya, central authority collapsed and 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 UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country, and basic services have collapsed.
All parties to a conflict are required to abide by the laws of war. Certain serious violations of the laws of war, when committed with criminal intent, such as executions of civilians or enemy fighters who had been captured or had surrendered, are war crimes. Anyone who commits, orders, or assists, or has command responsibility for war crimes, can be prosecuted by domestic or international courts. Commanders may be criminally liable for war crimes of their subordinates if they knew or should have known of the crimes and failed to take measures to prevent them or hand over those responsible for prosecution.
“Senior army commanders who do not act resolutely to stop gross violations in areas under their control, and hold those responsible to account, should face criminal prosecution for complicity in war crimes,” Goldstein said.