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Despite Government efforts, torture widespread in Libya’s detention centres – UN report

A former inmate of the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, returned to visit his cell in October 2011.
UNSMIL/Iason Athanasiadis
A former inmate of the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, returned to visit his cell in October 2011.

Despite Government efforts, torture widespread in Libya’s detention centres – UN report

Torture continues to be widespread in Libya’s detention centres, according to a United Nations report released today, which noted that some 27 people have died in custody in the past two years, with physical abuse cited as the cause.

The report, ‘Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya,’ said that abuse of detainees persists despite the Government’s efforts, and recommends swift action to transfer detainees held by armed brigades to State control, as well as renewed efforts to build the capacity of the criminal justice system.

“Torture is illegal, under any circumstance, with no exceptions,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. “The situation of detainees in Libya is alarming and while there has been some progress, there is an urgent need to renew efforts to prevent torture, investigate allegations of torture and prosecute those responsible.”

Ms. Pillay added that torture was a key tool of the previous repressive regime in Libya and called for full accountability for the crimes of the past and for ongoing abuses.

Torture is most frequent immediately after arrest and during the first days of interrogation to extract confessions and other information, according to the report. Detainees are usually held without access to lawyers and with only occasional, if any, access to families. The vast majority of the estimated 8,000 conflict-related detainees are also being held without due process.

Released jointly by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the report recorded 27 cases of death in custody, where significant information suggests that torture was the cause of death, since late 2011.

Eleven deaths in custody detailed in the report took place in 2013 in detention centres that are under the nominal authority of the Government but, in effect, are run by armed brigades which emerged during the 2011 revolution. In some cases, members of the armed brigades freely admitted, and even tried to justify, the physical abuse of detainees.

Since 2012, the Government has sought to bring armed brigades involved in detentions under the official authority of the State by affiliating them to specific ministries, even though in many cases the armed brigades have retained actual control of the detention centres.

In April, Libya also adopted a law criminalizing torture, enforced disappearances and discrimination, providing for terms of imprisonment ranging from five years to life, and in September this year, it adopted a new law on transitional justice which requires conflict-related detainees to be screened within 90 days.

The UN recommends that Libyan authorities and the armed brigades accelerate the process of handing over detainees to the control of State authorities, and in the meantime take measures to protect detainees against torture or other ill-treatment.

The report further recommends that Libyan authorities adopt a strategy to screen and, where appropriate, release or charge and prosecute conflict-related detainees, in implementation of the Law on Transitional Justice.

The report is based on information gathered first-hand during UNSMIL’s visits to nearly 30 detention centres over two years, including information from detainees, family members, officials and civil society, as well as documentation such as medical reports.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya and head of UNSMIL, Tarek Mitri, said that the prevailing situation of arbitrary detention and torture “runs against the very goals of the 17th of February Revolution of making a clean break with the systematic human rights violations of the former regime. In accordance with Libya’s national priorities, all Libyans should unite to put an end to the abuse of detainees and contribute to establishing the rule of law in the country.”