International Institute for Justice and Development

Libyan militias holding thousands captive

Posted on August 08, 2012

By: Christina Brown

As Libya celebrates its first election in forty years, we are reminded there is much more to a truly functioning democracy than just elections. Though the July 7 elections for the General National Congress went off fairly well, with only a few small pockets of violence, Libya's justice system is currently in shambles. There are currently 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners held in detention centers around the country, operated outside of state control by militia groups. The prisoners are accused of fighting for Gaddafi, though almost all have been held without charge. Many of the prison guards have also been accused of torturing detainees.

Detention centers throughout the country are maintained by former rebel fighters and abuse has been widespread. Since the civil war in Libya in 2011 and the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime, the transition government has not had control of all regions of the country. The National Transitional Council (NTC) has focused on administering elections for the new parliament and rebuilding the government in the capital. However establishment of a justice system for those accused of crimes during the civil war has not been a priority. Most of the facilities holding Gaddafi fighters, or those accused of such, are not under state control, but the government has said it will slowly acquire responsibility for maintaining the sites.

However, in the meantime thousands have been held without charge in warehouses and other makeshift facilities. Many of those held are Sub-Saharan Africans because of widespread accusations that the migrant workers had been brought in by Gaddafi as mercenaries to fight against the rebels. Members of the International Criminal Courts were detained for four weeks, and two reporters covering the elections were captured by militia groups and held in unofficial detention centers.

There have been many reports of captors abusing detainees, sometimes using the same techniques Gaddafi's prison wards used on them. In January 2012, Doctors without Borders announced it would stop working in detention centers in Misrata because they were asked to care for prisoners midway through torture sessions, so they could be patched up between abuses.

The government has stated that it intends to soon take control of the prisoners and bring them into the formal judicial system, but rebel groups have resisted this, preferring to detain those accused of being Gaddafi supporters themselves. Though the country has been congratulated for its elections, an understanding of the severely flawed justice system allows us to see that there are many pieces still missing on the road to true democracy.