Militias from the city of Misrata are terrorizing the displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawergha, accusing them of having committed atrocities with Gaddafi forces in Misrata, Human Rights Watch said. The entire town of 30,000 people is abandoned – some of it ransacked and burned – and Misrata brigade commanders say the residents of Tawergha should never return.
Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Tawerghans across the country, including 26 people in detention in and around Misrata and 35 displaced people staying in Tripoli, Heisha, and Hun. They gave credible accounts of some Misrata militias shooting unarmed Tawerghans, and of arbitrary arrests and beatings of Tawerghan detainees, in a few cases leading to death.
“Revenge against the people from Tawergha, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In the new Libya, Tawerghans accused of wrongdoing should be prosecuted based on the law, not subject to vigilante justice.”
The National Transitional Council (NTC) should bring central command and control, as well as accountability, to the more than 100 armed groups from Misrata, Human Rights Watch said. Anyone abusing Tawerghans, or preventing their return, is committing a criminal offense.
The people of Tawergha mostly fled in August to the Jufra region, south of Misrata, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which put the number of displaced Tawerghans there at 15,000. Local officials in Hun, a town in Jufra, said 4,000 Tawerghans had sought shelter in three camps there as of early October, and an unknown number are in the town of Sokna and nearby agricultural settlements. Since then, at least 5,000 Tawerghans have moved from Jufra to Benghazi and Tripoli, and other groups are in Tarhuna, Khoms, and the far south.
When Human Rights Watch visited Tawergha at the start of October, it appeared emptied of its residents and most of the buildings had been ransacked. Over three days between October 3 and 5, 2011, Human Rights Watch saw militias and individuals from Misrata set 12 houses aflame in the town.
On October 25, Human Rights Watch spoke with a Misrata brigade that claimed to be “guarding” Tawergha. The deputy commander said his forces were “protecting the place from arson and looting.” At the same time, trucks full of furniture and carpets, apparently looted from homes, drove past with men on the trucks honking and waving. Brigade members failed to intervene, arguing passionately that Tawreghans should never return after “what they did in Misrata.”
On October 26, Human Rights Watch saw four more homes burning in the town, and a freshly lit fire in an apartment block next the brigade’s base.
Most of the Tawerghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had fled between August 10 and 12, as Libyan opposition forces led by fighters from Misrata approached and entered the town. More than 100 civilians stayed in Tawergha after that date but said that militias quickly forced them out.
“They came outside my house, and told us we had to leave our homes,” said 80-year-old Muhammad Grayra Tawergi, a retired date farmer. “We were unarmed.”
The local authorities and residents of Misrata widely accuse Tawerghans, the majority of whom say they are descendants of African slaves, of having committed serious crimes in Misrata with Gaddafi forces, including murders and rapes.
Gaddafi forces used Tawergha as a base for attacks on Misrata and the surrounding area from March until they fled in August. Many Tawerghans supported Gaddafi, whose government claimed that Libyan opposition fighters would enslave Tawerghans if they took power. Hundreds of Tawerghans joined the army, both Misrata and Tawergha residents said, during the heaviest attacks on Misrata between March and May, when the city was besieged and repeatedly subjected to indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks. Misratan fighters successfully defended the city and began to defeat Gaddafi forces in the area, with help from NATO airstrikes.
Since the defeat of Gaddafi’s forces, the Tawerghans have reported serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, beatings, and some killings. Two cousins who fled the town told Human Rights Watch that they were gathering firewood in mid-September near where they were taking refuge in Lode, in the Jufra district, when they were captured by six armed men from a Misrata brigade. The brigade members handcuffed the two men, beat them, shot them, and left them abandoned on the side of the road.
“The first bullet hit my leg,” one of the men said. “Then they started shooting all over, and two bullets hit my side and one in my cousin’s leg. They were telling us to extend our hands to take off the handcuffs. I could see the bone in my leg so I fainted.” The other cousin, interviewed separately, gave the same account (see below), stressing that both men were unarmed and in custody when they were shot.
In some cases, arrested Tawerghans have been subjected to torture and severe beatings, sometimes leading to death. Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on August 20, they saw guards in a Misrata detention facility on Baladia Street beat to death Emhamid Muhammad Shtaywey, commonly known as Faraj, a 42 year-old garbage truck driver from Tawergha, who they said had been tortured to confess to rape.
“They hit him with everything, all over his body: a hose, a leather belt, a stick; they even kicked him on the chest,” one witness to the beating said. “He was lying on his back and they hit him hard.”
On August 20 or 21, guards at the Zaroug School detention facility in Misrata beat to death a mentally ill man from Tawergha named Ashraf Salah Muhammad because they wanted the pass code to a walkie-talkie, two witnesses said.
“They started whipping him at 10 a.m. with a horse whip,” one said. “It lasted forty-five minutes. He was dead by noon.”
On September 25, Human Rights Watch witnessed the abuse of detainees at the Wahda detention facility in Misrata. Around midnight, a group of guards forced four injured detainees to run in the courtyard and to walk on their knees with their hands behind their heads.
“We do this every day,” one of the guards said. “It is sport before they go to bed. They committed rape.”
Sulaiman Fortia, one of three Misrata representatives on the NTC, denounced the deaths in custody and the mistreatment of Tawerghans in Misrata prisons.
“This is wrong, and it shouldn’t happen,” he told Human Rights Watch.
Fortia said the problem stems from the lack of civilian control over the hundreds of Misrata brigades and militias operating in Misrata, Tripoli, and until recently in Sirte.