(Tripoli) – Libyan  authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the violent clashes in Benghazi on June 8, 2013, that left 32 people dead. The authorities should also hold those who violated the law accountable.
Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch how demonstrators in Benghazi gathered at the headquarters of the Libya Shield 1 Brigade, one of the larger militias in the city, to protest its conduct, which residents viewed as abusive and unaccountable, and to demand the deployment of Libya’s official army and police forces instead. Witnesses said the protest escalated from protesters throwing rocks and shots being fired to disperse the crowd, to shooting on both sides and the militia firing anti-aircraft weapons, killing and wounding scores of people. After several hours, the national army’s special forces took over the brigade’s base.
Libya’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), responded to the killings by issuing a decree ordering the general prosecutor to investigate, but the incident underscores the need for the government to rein in armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.
“An immediate and thorough investigation is needed to look into these crimes and explain why government forces didn’t intervene in a raging battle until dozens of people were dead,” said Eric Goldstein , Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The government also needs to end the impunity for militia abuses that prompted this demonstration in the first place. Its incoherent policy toward militias endangers any prospects for the rule of law.”
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at least two of the dead were from the Libya Shield 1 Brigade, two were from the special forces, and the rest were Benghazi residents who joined the protests. A worker at Jalaa hospital, which received many of the wounded and dead, told Human Rights Watch that approximately 27 wounded protesters had been transferred to Egypt for medical treatment, while others had been transferred to Tunisia. A smaller number of wounded special forces troops were awaiting transfer to a third country for treatment. Some of the wounded remain in critical condition.
There are conflicting reports as to how the incident unfolded.
A resident of Benghazi who did not wish to be named told Human Rights Watch the protest took place because “the people of Benghazi do not want any brigades to be present in their city.”
Witnesses to the clashes on what they called “Black Saturday” said that members of the Benghazi-based Bargathi tribe went to the Libya Shield 1 Brigade base in the Kweifieh area to demand its closure, and to file a grievance against one militia member, whom they accused of abusing residents. Witnesses said the delegation met with the commander of the brigade, Wissam Bin Hamid. After the Bargathi delegation left the camp, demonstrators threw stones at the militia, which fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.
One of the protesters, who also asked not to be named, said he arrived after the clashes had started. Only a small number of protesters were armed, he said, as opposed to the heavily armed militia:
I was located at the heart of the incident. They were already shooting at the people [when I arrived]. The matter is clear, people went out to protest against the presence of militias that arrest, kill and torture.
Khalil Areiq, a field commander of the Libya Shield 1 Brigade, told his version of how demonstrations began. He told Human Rights Watch that he saw one person throw two homemade explosives, known locally as “Gelatina,” toward the base, and that provoked a response. He acknowledged the militia then used heavy weapons, including antiaircraft weapons, against the demonstrators, but claimed the protesters also used machine guns:
The demonstration started peacefully and then some of the residents started to throw stones at the brigade. The doors of the brigade were opened and the clashes started. I was outside the brigade, by the protesters, to ensure we could react appropriately in case things got out of control. I definitely saw a member of the army special forces, and I know them, standing among the protesters. I also saw armed members of another brigade of the Bargathi tribe present among the crowds.
“Whether or not the government’s investigation can determine who fired the first shot, what matters here is the authorities’ complete failure to provide basic protection to its own people,” Goldstein said. “That failure drove scores of citizens to take matters into their own hands.”
The Libya Shield brigades were created from anti-Gaddafi armed groups to support the national army after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. They had been operating under the army chief of staff, Youssef Mangoush, but he resigned on June 9 – the day after the deadly incident in Benghazi.
Out of 12 Shield brigades nationwide, four brigades are based in Benghazi – 1, 2, 7, and 10. Shields 2 and 10 handed over their bases and weapons to the national army after the GNC passed a decree ordering all brigades without an official affiliation to the armed forces to be dissolved on June 9, one day after the killings. Shield 7 was responsible for securing the area of Kufra in southern Libya and was on its way back to Benghazi following the GNC’s decree. Thousands of Libya Shield members signed contracts with the army chief of staff and have received intermittent salaries and other payments.
On June 9, the GNC issued decree 53/ 2013, accepting Mangoush’s resignation and ordering the government to take all measures necessary – including the use of force – to shut down “unlawful brigades and armed formations” in Libya. The decree also gave the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, two weeks to establish a mechanism to merge individual members of armed groups that were granted “legitimacy” [by the government] into the ranks of the national army and national security forces. The process must be completed by the end of 2013, according to the GNC decree.
“Libya’s government should make it unequivocally clear it can and is willing to prevent tragedies such as the one in Benghazi,” Goldstein said. “It shouldn’t take the death of 32 citizens for the authorities to wake up and act.”
As well as groups loosely aligned to the government, scores of armed groups and militias continue to operate outside any state control in Libya. The government has not presented a comprehensive plan to dissolve the armed groups, including establishing criteria for members of armed groups to join state security forces or setting out alternative means for income and jobs for militia members.
As a first step, clear criteria should be established for vetting former militia members who wish to join state security forces to ensure they are not implicated in violations, including serious crimes such as torture and unlawful killings, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses and violations by militias, including enforced disappearances and torture that sometimes led to death. Several thousand detainees  are still being held by militias illegally and without judicial review – some in secret detention facilities.
Libya’s congress has failed to pass a law on transitional justice to deal with past abuses and violations committed by militias after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. By contrast, Law 38/2012 on Some Special Procedures for the Transitional Period, passed on May 2, 2012, grants anti-Gaddafi fighters widespread amnesty . The law says there shall be no penalty for “military, security, or civil actions dictated by the February 17 Revolution that were performed by revolutionaries with the goal of promoting or protecting the revolution.”
“Authorities in Libya cannot allow militias to maintain their stranglehold on security and justice in so many parts of Libya,” Goldstein said. “As long as no one is held accountable for major crimes committed in the new Libya, the cycle of violence will continue.”