(New York) – Libyan government forces appear to have executed 10 protesters following an anti-government demonstration in the town of Bani Walid on May 28, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Earlier on that day government forces fired on apparently peaceful protesters, killing at least two and wounding 10, in the government-controlled town about 170 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tripoli. After the protest a rebel sympathizer apparently killed a government paramilitary commander and two bodyguards.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six men with knowledge of the day’s events, including three who saw government forces fire on the demonstrators. Three of the men spoke on cell phones with the protesters who were later killed as they sought shelter in a nearby building after the demonstration. One of these men watched government forces storm the building and heard automatic weapon fire.
“The apparent execution by Libyan forces of 10 men is stomach-turning,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Libya’s government should recognize that atrocities committed even in remote places like Bani Walid will see the light of day.”
Libya’s Minister of Justice Mohammed al-Gamudi andGeneralProsecutor Mohammad Zakri told Human Rights Watch during a recent visit to Tripoli that they were unaware of any killings in Bani Walid on May 28, or any investigations there.
Videos apparently showing the May 28 demonstration in Bani Walid and parts of the apparent execution have been available on YouTube for several weeks, but details of the killings only emerged when Human Rights Watch interviewed the witnesses and victims’ relatives in early July, after they fled the government-held town.
The witnesses and other Bani Walid residents told Human Rights Watch that the May 28 protest was the first significant anti-government demonstration in the town since a protest on March 3, which proceeded peacefully. At the first anti-government protest in Bani Walid, on February 20, government forces fired in the air to disperse about 800 marchers.
The May 28 demonstration began about 3 p.m., when a crowd of nearly 300 people gathered in front of the Saadi Tabuli school and peacefully shouted anti-government slogans, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch. None of the protesters were seen carrying weapons during the demonstration, they said. Three videos viewed by Human Rights Watch apparently of the demonstration show no protesters with visible weapons.
When the demonstration began to grow, three witnesses said, a government paramilitary group called the Jafal Nusur el-Fetah (“Jafal”) opened fire on the crowd, killing at least two men and wounding 10. One of the wounded protesters, “Ahmed” (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch how the government forces attacked.
“They [the Jafal] were about 150 meters away,” he said. “The shabab [youth activists] ran away. I was wounded right away, around 3:15 p.m., with [bullet] fragments close to my eye and in my abdomen.”
Ahmed showed Human Rights Watch an X-ray of his head that he said was taken after the attack. According to a radiologist who reviewed the X-ray for Human Rights Watch, it shows metallic densities above the eye consistent with some kind of metallic artifact, possibly a bullet fragment.
Another demonstrator, “Hassan” (not his real name), described the fatal shooting of one of the protesters, Abdulnasser Rafufy.
“Abdulnasser died right next to me just after the shooting started, around 3:30 p.m.,” Hassan said. “He got a bullet in the head, and there were bullets coming at us from everywhere.”
Embarak Salah Futmani, the opposition National Transitional Council representative from Bani Walid, told Human Rights Watch that he received a phone call at 4:30 p.m. saying that the Jafal had killed his son, Youssef Embarak al-Salah Futmani, a 28-year-old lawyer, along with two others. The father identified his son in one of the videos that Human Rights Watch viewed of the demonstration.
A third witness, “Muhammad” (not his real name), said the Jafal shot his friend Osama Ali Shafter in both legs. He said he took Shafter to the hospital, where government forces arrested the wounded man. Members of the Internal Security force told Shafter’s family that he had been taken to Tripoli.
After the Jafal opened fire, the protesters scattered, the witnesses said. Hassan and Futmani, the National Transitional Council representative, said that two protesters ran to their cars to get firearms.
Around this time, Futmani said, a person believed to be a rebel sympathizer shot and killed the Jafal commander, Khalifa Jibran, along with two of his bodyguards. Other Bani Walid residents said that Jibran was killed that day, but they did not know the time or circumstances of his death.
By around 4 p.m. a group of at least 10 protesters had sought shelter in a room above a bakery in the Trade Building next to the Saadi Tabuli school. Hassan told Human Rights Watch that he joined the men in the room, but left by 4:30 when he heard more shooting outside. He said that “maybe two of them [in the room] had weapons.”
Hassan said he then watched from across the street as Jafal forces surrounded the Trade Building. The demonstrators inside began to communicate with friends and family by mobile phone, including with Hassan and two others interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Over the next three hours, Hassan said, he watched men going in and out of the building, apparently trying to convince those inside to surrender. Around 7:30 p.m. the men inside apparently gave up their weapons.
“I saw someone come out with the weapons – two or three guns,” Hassan said.
Hassan said that immediately after the man carrying the surrendered guns emerged from the Trade Building, armed Jafal paramilitaries rushed inside. This was followed by the sound of automatic weapon fire from inside the building. Hassan said he did not see any Jafal members emerge wounded or other evidence that the men in the room had opened fire. He told Human Rights Watch:
As soon as this person in civilian clothes took the weapons out [of the building], the Jafal went in. The person who came out with the weapons tried to prevent the Jafal from going in, but they pushed him out of the way and went in. About 24 Jafal went in…I heard gunfire. I heard insults and crying.
At least one video appears to show the shooting inside the room. Human Rights Watch could not confirm that the video was shot on May 28 in Bani Walid, but Futmani identified two of the bodies in the video as his nephew, Mustafa Abdullah Salah el-Futmani, a 29-year-old imam and professor of Islamic studies, and 38-year-old Fawzi Shlafty. Bani Walid residents told Human Rights Watch that they believe the video was recorded on the cell phone of one of the Jafal members.
The video shows at least seven motionless men on the floor. A group of men in civilian clothes, one wearing a cap with Muammar Gaddafi’s photo, are standing and shouting in a western Libyan accent. One man is visible pointing a handgun and another holds a rifle. At one point, a man can be heard saying: “He’s alive, he’s alive.” About 14 individual gunshots and a short volley of automatic gunfire follow.
Bani Walid residents said that Jafal Nusur el-Fetah is the primary security force in the town. Futmani said the Jafal is loosely organized: some members wear uniforms and others do not. Some are also members of the Revolutionary Committees and Revolutionary Guards, civilian forces aligned with Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, he and other Bani Walid residents said. One witness said that members of the Revolutionary Committees and Civil Guard [Haras el-Shabi] were among the forces that fired on the demonstrators, as were some members of Internal Security in civilian clothes.
“A prompt and impartial investigation is needed for a full accounting of the deaths on May 28 in Bani Walid,” Whitson said. “But the Libyan government has shown no inclination to investigate alleged government abuses or see that they stop.”
At the protest:
Abdulnasser Rafufy, age and profession unknown
Youssef Embarak Salah al-Futmani, 28, lawyer
In the room:
Walid Shafter, 31, administrative employee in the agricultural sector
Mustafa Abdullah Salah el-Futmani, 29, imam and professor of Islamic studies
Salah Saeed Bin Gatanish, 35, law professor
Mustafa Hmouda Shafter, 43, professor of accounting
Abdullah Shtewi Shafter, 36, engineer
Fawzi Othman Omar Shlafty, 38, unemployed
Haddoud Suleiman Haddoud el-Wurfally, 26, secondary school student
Muhammad Ali Salah Zbayda, 17, student
Muhammad Rajab Masood Zbayda, early 30s, law student
Khalid Fituri el-Ghazzali, age and profession unknown
A protester, “Hassan” (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that he saw the government paramilitary force Jafal Nusur el-Fetah fire on the demonstrators, wounding several and killing Abdulnasser Rafufy:
Abdulnasser died right next to me right after the shooting started, around 3:30 p.m. He got a bullet in the head, and there were bullets coming at us from everywhere. We were trying to pull back, hiding behind buildings and cars, because it was live ammunition. I saw one person wounded in the arm, one wounded in the leg. Another guy got hit, and blood was pouring out. From the amount of fire we were receiving, we couldn’t even go and help him. We knew they were trying to kill us because they were firing from all directions. Muhammad Suni was next to me when he was hit. Theshabab [youth activists] took him to the hospital because he got a couple of bullets in the hip.
“Ahmed” (not his real name) said he was wounded by government fire at the protest. He said he did not go to the hospital for fear of arrest:
We didn’t expect anything like this. We thought maybe they would come separate us. We didn’t think they would kill us…The [Jafal] was about 150 meters away. The shabab ran away. I was wounded straight away, around 3:15 p.m., with [bullet] fragments close to my eye and in my abdomen … If I had gone to the hospital, they would have killed me. Some of the shabab who were with me went to the hospital and were arrested; we don’t know what has happened to them.
“Muhammad” (not his real name) said the Jafal Nusur el-Fetah shot and wounded his friend Osama Ali Shafter. He said he took Shafter to the hospital, where government forces arrested the wounded man:
Osama was hit in both legs. He had escaped from the area where the protest was happening and had been trying to make his way to my house. So we took him to the hospital. I reached the door of the hospital and saw that the situation wasn’t normal. All the katibas [government forces] were there. I didn’t go into the main door. The shabab told me to go away because obviously there was some danger… But the shabab took Osama into the hospital. They took him to a room for two to three hours, and then he was arrested and disappeared. We think they took him to Tripoli. When his family went to the hospital later, the Internal Security [Amn al-Dakhili] said that he had been taken to Tripoli.
Hassan told Human Rights Watch that he called one of the men in the Trade Building room after he saw the Jafal surround the building:
We tried calling people in the room, trying to help, and they told us, “Hassan, they are trying to kill us, find a way to push them away.” I talked to Salah Saeed, a professor of law at the university, and Mustafa Hmouda, who has a doctorate… They [the men in the building] called me later and said, “Do something.” A negotiator was sent in; I think his name was Ramadan. He told the people in the room to give up their weapons and surrender themselves. Mustafa said they were told they would be fine if they surrendered themselves. I told them not to give up their weapons because they had to defend themselves. But Mustafa said, “No, I know the negotiator and trust him.” There were 20 calls between me and the shabab, trying to find a solution. I think two people had weapons and they both gave up their weapons…. I saw someone come out with the [surrendered] weapons – two or three guns. This was around 7:30 p.m., but I’m not sure
Muhammad said he was also on the phone with one of the men trapped in the room:
I was on the phone with Haddoud [el-Wurfally]. No one expected what was happening. The worst thing we expected was that they would be arrested. And we were sorry about Mustafa [el-Futmani] and Walid [Shafter] because they were injured. Walid said, “I am finished, I have lost so much blood.”
The only local radio [Radio Bani Walid] was making things worse by saying the people in the room were al-Qaeda and Egyptians.
There are no outsiders in the [Jafal]; they are all from Bani Walid. So you don’t expect a cousin to do this to you. So all we expected was that they would get arrested. Their treatment would have been terrible; they could have been taken to Tripoli or to Abu Salim. But no one expected what happened…
Their one request was for us to talk to the elders of the city so they could come negotiate and get rid of the troops. So we went. I was one of the ones who went to the elders. Unfortunately the situation was terrible. We couldn’t get in [to the area where the men were taking refuge]. We went to the elders and tried to speak to them, but there was no solution. So we went home. All of this time, we were on the phone saying that the elders were outside and not to worry.
I was on the phone with people in the room until 7 p.m., for about three hours. Neither they nor I expected it to finish the way it did. At approximately 7:30 p.m., after heavy fire, I could see the smoke from above the house. Afterward, the news started getting out that the people in the room had been fired upon. At first it wasn’t clear that they had killed all of them. We were shocked, truly shocked.
Human Rights Watch spoke with three relatives of men killed in the room, who said that the authorities took the victims’ bodies to Tripoli before handing them back to the families in Bani Walid. One man whose relative, Fawzi Shlafty, was among those killed said that another relative had picked up Shlafty’s body in Tripoli three days after the shooting. Embarak Futmani said that the bodies, including that of his son Youssef, had been taken to Tibi Hospital in Tripoli.
Another man whose relative, Haddoud el-Wurfally, was killed said his family received the body five days later:
They gave us the bodies on the fifth day. The bodies were first taken to the morgue in Bani Walid, and then the next morning taken to Tripoli, we think at dawn, because the kids went early to pick up the bodies and that’s what the Internal Security told them. The death certificate for my relative is from Tripoli, not Bani Walid.
Human Rights Watch inspected the coroner’s report for Haddoud el-Wurfally issued by the district attorney on June 1. It states the cause of death as multiple bullet wounds.
Following the May 28 demonstration government forces searched houses for protesters, forcing many of them to leave Bani Walid with their families. All six residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch had fled to other parts of Libya. Embarak Futmani, who left Bani Walid after being in hiding for a week, told Human Rights Watch:
My name was listed. I left a week later. My name was known…Forty cars came from Tripoli and started searching all the houses in Bani Walid. They were looking for people who participated in the demonstration. Even now, they are still searching…They came into my house between 2 and 3 in the morning to take me. I was hiding at the time in my home.