(Ras Ijdir, Tunisia) - There have been few, if any, abuses by the police in the city of Zuwara, 109 kilometers west of Tripoli, during and since its takeover by anti-government forces a week ago, Libyan citizens and foreign workers from the city told Human Rights Watch. They said the police had not tried to suppress a series of anti-government demonstrations, and that police from Zuwara sided with the protesters, while police not originally from Zuwara had left the city.
Human Rights Watch collected the information on February 26, 2011, in interviews with people arriving from Libya on the Tunisian side of the border and in phone conversations with people in Libya.
"The accounts from this western city suggest that the police did not terrorize the local population when it rose up in protest," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "Instead, they appear to have either fled or joined the opposition."
Three Libyans in Zuwara whom Human Rights Watch reached by telephone, and two other Libyans from Zuwara interviewed in Tunisia, said that the city was calm, with youth and community youth watch groups patrolling various neighborhoods, on scheduled shifts day and night.
One Libyan said that the demonstrations began led to the flight of the non-local police. A much bigger demonstration on February 25 encountered no police or military resistance.
"Everything is calm, traffic on the streets is busy, and people are returning to their normal lives," he said. "The local Zuwara police have joined us, and they have reopened the police station. Only the non-local police [from other parts of Libya] have left."
The witnesses agreed there had been some violence during the initial demonstrations in the form of attacks on police stations. Three Libyan citizens concurred that only one person had been killed in Zuwara, Nabeel Rabaa', age 40. They said he was killed by a bullet from a protester's weapon that accidentally misfired.
One of the Libyans who was crossing into Tunisia said that the demonstrators were calling for freedom and their rights and chanting, "We want freedom of speech," "We want freedom of opinion," "We want Amazigh [Berber] cultural rights." Zuwara has a significant Amazigh, or Berber, population. The witness said that after the first demonstration, the protesters burned a police station and a center for police investigation.
One employee of a Chinese company in Zuwara whom Human Rights Watch interviewed at the Tunisia border said that a group of men in plainclothes, arrived at the company's office in a truck, armed with knives and guns, threatened the employees there, and ransacked her company's offices, taking computers and other property from the premises. Her company then had to shut down operations and evacuate its workers.
Egyptian workers Mohamed Salem and Mohamed Gamal Mohamed, who drove through Zuwara on their way from Tripoli to Tunisia, said they saw burned cars and damaged buildings, including a burned central security office building and shops. He said it seemed clear that Zuwara was not under government control, because whereas Libyan military officers stopped the Egyptians at checkpoints every 3 to 4 kilometers on the road from Tripoli, when they passed by Zuwara, they had no checkpoints for a stretch of about 10 kilometers. Another Egyptian worker who traveled the same route confirmed this.
Mohamed, who worked in Tripoli, said he heard gunshots all night long during several nights since last week. He said he had seen burned government buildings in the Green Square in Tripoli, including the Interior Security building. At checkpoints on the road from Tripoli to Tunisia, he said, pro-government forces searched the data and imagery on their cell phones and confiscated their SIM cards and memory cards. Dozens of others who crossed into Tunisia have told similar accounts to Human Rights Watch about their SIM cards being seized.
"Libya not only is trying to limit outside observers coming in to evaluate for themselves what is happening," said Whitson. "They are trying to prevent those who leave the country from taking visual evidence with them."