Government Should Build Rule of Law After Gaddafi’s Death
October 20, 2011

With the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal rule, the Libyan people now deserve to see justice for the many crimes committed on his watch. For four decades Libyans faced terror and repression. Gaddafi’s death doesn’t lessen the need for Libyans to learn the truth about those horrendous decades and see other high-level officials implicated in abuses fairly brought to justice.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(Sirte) – The end of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule over Libya offers a unique opportunity for the country to end an extraordinarily long era of human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Media reports say forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) or a NATO air strike wounded Gaddafi during fighting in his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011. He died soon after, according to these sources.

“With the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal rule, the Libyan people now deserve to see justice for the many crimes committed on his watch,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “For four decades Libyans faced terror and repression. Gaddafi’s death doesn’t lessen the need for Libyans to learn the truth about those horrendous decades and see other high-level officials implicated in abuses fairly brought to justice.”

Stretching over 42 years, the Gaddafi era accumulated an appalling record of disregard for human rights, at home and abroad. The new authorities should seek thorough, independent investigations into the most serious crimes of the past four decades. The killing of an estimated 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim in 1996is the most notorious episode in a long catalogue of human rights abuses. Since 1969, these have included disappearances, politically-motivated arrests, and the use of torture, as well as the near-total repression of freedom of expression and association. Gaddafi’s Libya was one of the region’s most thorough police states. The unique political system he invented, the Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses,” also precluded meaningful elections – something that a new, democratic Libya must remedy. Outside Libya, he was best-known for his alleged involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Gaddafi shook off decades of diplomatic isolation to become an ally of the US and European governments in counterterrorism efforts. Human Rights Watch documented complicity between the Gaddafi government and the US and UK intelligence services in the rendition of alleged terrorism suspects, which led to their torture.  

Western governments’ apparent eagerness to embrace Gaddafi for his support on counterterrorism, as well as lucrative business opportunities, tempered their criticism of his human rights record in recent years.

Libya’s new leaders will have an unprecedented opportunity to lead by example on human rights, including by protecting basic rights in a new constitution. The new authorities will be in a position to ratify and put into practice a host of international legal and human rights instruments and treaties that the Gaddafi regime did not. Penal and criminal procedure codes, as well as laws restricting association, expression, and political parties, will require extensive revision if Libyan laws are to be brought into line with international human rights standards, and the judicial system and security services will require profound reorganization, reform, and training.

The council should take immediate steps to stop revenge attacks, including looting and destruction of property in Sirte, long a Gaddafi stronghold, as well as Bani Walid, which the NTC forces captured on October 17. It should send a strong message that revenge attacks on Gaddafi supporters and on their property in these cities will be investigated and prosecuted. The council should also investigate the circumstances leading to the death of Gaddafi, including whether he was killed while in detention, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war. Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to set up an internationally supervised autopsy to establish Gaddafi's cause of death.

The conflict between the Gaddafi government and rebel forces, which began in February 2011 following mass popular demonstrations against Gaddafi’s rule, witnessed serious abuses by Gaddafi forces, including executions, indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, and widespread arrests and disappearancesof anti-government demonstrators and political opponents. Opposition rebels who took up arms against Gaddafi also have committed revenge attacks in some areas they now control and against groups they blame for aiding Gaddafi in his repression.

The NTC urgently should speak out against such revenge attacks and ensure there is a justice system in place that can investigate and punish them quickly and fairly. As quickly as possible, it needs to develop the groundwork for truth, reconciliation, and transitional justice. The people of Libya need prompt reassurance that 42 years of abuses will not go unpunished, no matter how long the process may take, but that the process will be fair and open.

Any prosecution of former government and military officials for human rights abuses must in all cases protect the due process rights of the accused, and exclude the possibility of cruel and inhuman punishment, including the death penalty. The NTC should ensure that its forces treat all suspects in custody humanely and brings them before a judge, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. The transitional government officials also should cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC), including with respect to the two outstanding arrest warrants issued against Gaddafi officials.

On March 3 the ICC opened an investigation into crimes committed in Libya since February 15. In resolution 1970 of February 26, the UN Security Council had referred the situation there to the ICC. The resolution requires cooperation with any ICC investigation into serious crimes committed in Libya.

On June 27 the ICC judges authorized three arrest warrants, for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, and Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Sanussi. The three were charged with crimes against humanity for their roles in attacks on civilians, including peaceful demonstrators. These attacks were committed in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, and other locations in Libya.

“The drafting of a new constitution offers a golden opportunity for positive change in Libya,” Whitson said. “The best way to ensure the Gaddafi nightmare is never repeated is to build a new Libya based on the rule of law and respect for the rights of all people, and to prosecute those who take justice into their own hands.”