- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2012

Revolutionary militias in Libya are torturing suspected Gadhafi supporters and other detainees in centers across the country with impunity, a top U.N. official and human rights groups say.

The situation has deteriorated so quickly that Doctors Without Borders suspended part of its operations in the western city of Misrata on Thursday.

The international humanitarian group said local officials brought patients in the middle of interrogation for medical care so that they could be taken back and tortured more.

“Some officials have sought to exploit and obstruct [our] medical work,” said Christopher Stokes, the general director of Doctors Without Borders.

“Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions,” he added.

The organization said it had treated 115 people with torture-related wounds since it started work in Misrata in August.

About 8,500 people are being held in more than 60 detention centers across Libya, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Many of the detainees are held by armed groups over which Libya’s transitional government has no control.

A majority of the detainees, which includes a large number of sub-Saharan Africans, is accused of being loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed in October.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that she is concerned about the conditions of detention and treatment of detainees in Libya.

“The lack of oversight by the central authorities creates an environment conducive to torture and ill treatment,” she said. “My staff have received alarming reports that this is happening in places of detention that they have visited.”

Ms. Pillay and human rights organizations want all detention centers to immediately be brought under the control of the Justice Ministry and the general prosecutor’s office.

Amnesty International stated that its teams met with detainees in and around Tripoli and Misrata, who had open wounds on the head, limbs and back, which indicated recent torture.

“The torture is being carried out by officially recognized military and security entities as well by a multitude of armed militias operating outside any legal framework,” according to Amnesty International.

Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city about 125 miles east of Tripoli, was the target of a brutal siege by pro-Gadhafi forces during the revolution, which started in February 2011. Hatred for the former regime and its defenders runs deep in the city.

Reports of torture were rampant during the revolution, but Misrata residents justified their actions as necessary to learn of planned attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces.

They insist that the detainees have been well-treated since the end of the revolution in October.

“There is no reason for [torture] to happen now,” said Mohamed Benrasali, a Misrata resident. “It hasn’t happened and for [Doctors Without Border] to pull out now will give the impression that it is happening as we speak.

“We pride ourselves on our treatment of prisoners, and this accusation is a kick in the teeth. They have to come up with details and evidence.”

The head of Misrata’s security committee also was shocked by the torture allegations, said a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Doctors Without Borders sent a letter to Misrata’s military council, security committee and local council on Jan. 9 demanding an immediate end to ill treatment of detainees.

“No concrete action has been taken,” said Mr. Stokes. “Instead, our team received four new torture cases.”

Many high-profile detainees are being held in Misrata. Among them are Gadhafi’s cousin and education minister Ahmed Ibrahim; Mansour Daou, the former regime’s top security official; two sons of Abu Bakr Younus Jabr, the chief of Gadhafi’s armed forces who was killed in the city of Sirte; two of the dictator’s clergymen; and several high-ranking army officers.

Gadhafi’s troops can be held if there is credible evidence that they committed a crime, such as attacks on civilians and rape, said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser for Human Rights Watch.

“In other words, just having fought for Gadhafi is not in itself a crime, and those people should be released,” he added.

Mr. Abrahams is one of the few foreigners who have been allowed to meet with Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, since his arrest in November. He is being held by a local revolutionary brigade in Zintan, a city in Libya’s Western Mountains. He told Mr. Abrahams that he was being treated well but had been denied access to an attorney.

Treatment of detainees varies widely from place to place, and that includes the different facilities in the same town, Mr. Abrahams said.

Human rights groups say there is an urgent need for the international community to press Libya’s government to get its justice system organized.

“The international community has a real responsibility here,” Sidney Kwiram, a Human Rights Watch consultant, said in an Internet phone interview from Misrata.

She insisted that Western governments that supported the NATO air war that helped topple Gadhafi “need to keep the heat on the Libyan government to get the justice system on its feet as quickly as possible.”

About 35,000 residents of the town of Tawergha, who have been accused by residents of neighboring Misrata of supporting the regime, have been prevented from returning to their homes. Most of them are housed in camps across the country, and many of the men are in detention centers where they reportedly have been tortured.

“The way they treat people who they claim fought against them will say a lot about what kind of country they become,” Ms. Kwiram said.

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