Libyan rebels face test dealing with pro-Gadhafi suspects

Rebel fighters stomp on the head of a Moammar Gadhafi statue inside his compound in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 23, 2011.


By DAVID ENDERS | McClatchy Newspapers | Published: August 28, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya — Jamila Salem had been up since five a.m., searching Tripoli on Sunday for her missing son, Adel. First, she'd visited the military base that rebels now control in central Tripoli where Adel had been a soldier in the Libyan army.

The director of the base's hospital said he didn't know if Adel had been among the wounded who'd been treated there.

Next she went to a school nearby where rebels are holding suspected Gadhafi sympathizers. She gave her son's name and then tearfully waited for word with dozens of other family members who also were searching for missing relatives.

"He disappeared 10 days ago," she sobbed as she recounted the little she knew. As she moved about the city, she clutched a printout of the pre-1977 Libyan flag, the symbol of the revolution, in case anyone questioned the loyalties of a mother of a soldier in the army of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Underneath the flag were the words "Free Libya."

Libyan rebels who entered Tripoli from three sides last week have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners in the fighting and are now holding them throughout the capital, sometimes in prisons that just a few days ago had held suspected anti-Gadhafi protesters. Perhaps just as often, the jails are makeshift facilities that previously had been schools.

Now the rebel National Transitional Council must figure out what to do with the men in an early test of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil's pledge that the rebels' would not exact retribution on Gadhafi supporters as they seek to remake a country that lived under Gadhafi's mercurial, often brutal, rule for nearly 42 years.

Mohamed al Alagi, the rebels' minister of justice, admitted the transitional council has no idea how many prisoners its forces hold or even how many prisons and holding facilities they operate. He acknowledged that there was very little coordination between revolutionary groups within the city or countrywide and that each individual rebel unit was making its own decisions on what to do with its captives.

Alagi said he hoped to know more on Monday and that judges had been told to report for work to start dealing with the cases.

"Tomorrow the ministry will be working normally, and I will be there," he said.

With no centralized control of the rebels who've poured into Tripoli, often without direct orders to come here, there is widespread worry about the potential for atrocities. Already there is suspicion that many of the dead who lay strewn about the capital in recent days were the victims of execution, not fighting.

At the hospital in Abu Salim, a district that fell to the rebels on Friday, at least 100 bodies were found by medical staff when they arrived at the facility. At least two had been shot in their beds, both apparent members of Gadhafi's military. The other bodies were in such a state of decomposition it was not immediately clear how or when they had died, and there was no way to know immediately who had fired the fatal shots.

At a traffic circle near Gadhafi's Bab al Aziziya headquarters complex, at least two dozen bodies of Gadhafi soldiers were found also on Friday. Many were in their tents, without shoes, as if they'd been asleep. One was shot in the back of an ambulance. Another had been killed on a hospital gurney, an intravenous drip still embedded in his arm.

With Gadhafi's troops also accused of atrocities — photos circulated over the weekend of dozens of bodies of people allegedly executed by pro-government sympathizers and then burned — the risk of revenge killing is on many minds.

"The prophet did not kill or beat prisoners, he treated them like people," Mohamed el Koreishi, the imam at the Abu Zeineen Mosque in Souk al Jumaa, one of the first neighborhoods freed by rebels, warned his congregation on Friday in the first worship service since rebels had taken the capital. "Don't take revenge. We don't want to have violence in our society."

There was also concern that suspicion was falling disproportionately on black Africans, up to a million of whom had worked in Libya before the revolution. At one police station, the commander, Saleh Mohammed, said only one of the 45 prisoners he held had carried an ID card that linked him to a pro-Gadhafi militia. Thirty of the prisoners were citizens of other African countries, however.

Diana Eltahawy, a researcher for Amnesty International, the prisoners' rights group, said xenophobia had long been a problem in Libya.

"They've made the problems worse by saying in various interviews that black mercenaries were responsible for the worst abuses against the civilian population, like rapes and mass killings," Eltahawy said, referring to the rebels. "A lot of these reports were widely exaggerated, especially the rapes."

Fathi Mohamed, who sat in Saleh Mohamed's office and identified himself as a volunteer from the neighborhood, promised that the Africans would be treated fairly.

"We have many crimes from these Africans," Fathi Mohamed added. "We can't trust anyone. We have to clean up Libya. Some of them are innocent. Some of them are laborers. They can go back to work."

How justice will be meted out to the prisoners being held was an open question, however, as were the conditions of their confinement. Requests to tour the inside of facilities where prisoners were being held Sunday were denied.

Relatives waiting for news of their missing loved ones expressed frustration at the lack of information.

"Since February I've been looking for my son," said Mohamed Majoub Sheikh, from the Tajoura neighborhood of Tripoli, one of the first in the capital to rise up against Gadhafi.

"He is 17. He was with the (revolutionaries) at a checkpoint on February 22, and he was arrested by Gadhafi's militia. He was not even armed."

"One month ago, he was in Ain Zara prison," Sheikh said, referring to a Gadhafi-government prison in southern Tripoli. "He was forced to fight with Gadhafi's militia."

Other families spoke of relatives who'd been pressed into service for Gadhafi against the revolutionaries and were now missing.

"My son was in prison for 11 years," said Samira al Abdea, the mother of Said Mohamed al Abdea, who had been convicted of murder. "He was supposed to be executed."

Samira said the head of Abu Salim prison, where he was held under Gadhafi, in March offered to commute Said's sentence if he would join Gadhafi forces fighting the rebels in Misrata, west of Tripoli.

"They gave him 3,000 dinars (about $2,500)," she said. But the money wasn't enough to keep Said on the front line. When the fight for Tripoli reached Abu Salim, the neighborhood where Samira lives, Said hid in her house before fleeing the rebel approach on Thursday.

Neither Abdea, Sheikh nor Salem found their sons at the school in Souk al Jumaa Sunday.

At this point, there is little for families of those missing to do but go from hospital to hospital and visit rebel bases, which have become sort of de facto governmental structures since Gadhafi's fall.

"In each battle, we took prisoners. If they died, we buried them," said Salem Mohamed Ismail, the commander of a rebel unit from Misrata that was one of the first to enter Tripoli and participated in heavy fighting last week.

Ismail said his unit had taken hundreds of prisoners during the fighting, but refused to say where they had been sent after their capture.

Eltahawy, the Amnesty International researcher, said she'd had difficulty determining how many prisoners the rebels held.

"Officials in detention facilities themselves are giving wide ranges of numbers," she said. "People keep being detained and released."

Tracking the numbers of prisoners in rebel hands "has been a problem from the beginning," she said. "The national council is not in charge. There's no coordination. There's no accountability."

Still, she said the rebels seemed to have committed fewer war crimes than pro-Gadhafi forces.

"The NTC has publicly made commitments to avoid revenge killings," Eltahawy said. "I think they're trying. They've started sending out text messages urging fighters to avoid revenge killings. . . . There are some cases, mostly torture and revenge killings. It's on a smaller level than the Gadhafi forces."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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