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Dispatches: Law and Order in Libya, Tripoli-Style
August 27, 2013

Tripoli’s checkpoints, which dot the main crossroads of Libya’s capital and are typically run by unaccountable militias as well as official security forces, recently became even more unnerving with the appearance of heavily armed men with vehicle-mounted antiaircraft weapons.

Ever since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, men manning the checkpoints would stop and check your car and ID papers and remove tinted foil from the car’s windows – meant as sun protection but illegal here as a security precaution. Then they wave you on or pull you aside for an in-depth check.

But since late July, militia men with heavy weaponry and no clear insignia indicating their allegiance have begun appearing at checkpoints. They belong to the Libya Shield Forces, militias who mainly hail from Misrata and who, like other militias, have been operating with impunity since the 2011 uprising. Their presence is particularly galling because of their reputation for abuse.

Libya’s president (and head of parliament) Nuri Abu Sahmain deployed the Libya Shield Forces in the name of security, after a spate of assassinations and bombings in Tripoli.

This is only one of several disturbing changes. On August 5 the parliament granted Abu Sahmain the authority to adopt “urgent and necessary measures” to restore security in the country.

These exceptional powers amount to an unofficial state of emergency, which Abu Sahmain derogated to the minister of defense. They authorize “arresting criminals” and “establishing the rule of law.” But the decree does not state what lawful powers are given to the militias, when people can be arrested, who can arrest them or for how long they can be held. Nor does it specify the duration of this “temporary” phase. If regional practices are anything to go by, it could be years, not months.

Security remains a serious problem in Libya – in recent weeks, violence engulfed Benghazi and Derna in the east as well as the capital. But the decision to further empower militias to enforce security is fraught with risk. The militias are not being brought into the formal security forces, with clear accountability and legal duties. They operate in parallel to the formal army and police, hampering Libya’s bid to reform those institutions. Nor do they have the lawful authority, training or resources to engage in law enforcement in a manner that respects basic rights.

Emergency measures should be clearly defined in duration and scope, to be implemented only where and when strictly necessary and proportionate to the threat. Judges should have the power to strike down measures that are excessive or no longer necessary.

Libya needs practical yet firm measures to reform its security sector and to build a professional police force that can establish and maintain law and order – not enhanced power for unaccountable militias.