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September 23, 2011 Correction: The press release and captions have been corrected to say that the International Committee of the Red Cross conducted the exhumations near al-Qawalish rather than the Libyan Red Crescent Society.

(Tripoli) – Thirty-four bodies exhumed from a mass grave near the town of al-Qawalish in western Libya seem to be those of men detained by pro-Gaddafi forces in early June 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.

The evidence strongly suggests the detainees were executed at that time, before the pro-Gaddafi forces fled from the area, in the Nafusa mountains. The bodies of another three who seem to have been executed by the same perpetrators have also been discovered nearby. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch the victims hadbeen detained from or near their homes or at a major checkpoint in the area, and included at least nine men aged over 60, including an 89-year-old man. The majority were from the nearby town of al-Qal’a.

“The mass grave at al-Qawalish contains further evidence strongly suggesting that Gaddafi loyalists carried out mass executions of detainees as they struggled to suppress the uprising,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “These victims included some very old men, some executed together with their sons.”

During a visit by Human Rights Watch to the region shortly after pro-Gaddafi forces had fled the area on July 6,the new authorities in towns near al-Qawalish furnished the names of 173 missing men, including 81 from al-Qal’a. Villagers and investigators from the ad hoc regional council for the Nafusa mountains said the fate of the missing was not established until rebels captured a Gaddafi loyalist whose mobile phone contained a video clip showing the bodies of men, bound and blindfolded, lying in a forest clearing. Relatives of many of the missing from al-Qal’a told Human Rights Watch they recognized some of the dead in the video, and recognized the location as a forest behind a Libyan Scouts base on the western edge of al-Qawalish.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) conducted the exhumation beginning on August 20, with the consent of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the de facto authority that controls most of Libya. An investigative team from the Nafusa mountains regional council was also present. Twenty-seven of the 34 bodies were subsequently identified.

The exhumed bodies were blindfolded with hands tied. The discovery of bullet casings at the site suggests the captors shot the men with automatic gunfire before burying them in a shallow common grave. Near the mass grave is a separate grave containing three more bodies that have not yet been exhumed, but have been tentatively identified based on footwear and other physical evidence.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed three men from al-Qal’a who were detained at the Scouts base, as well as five family members of others who were detained and later apparently executed, and who had witnessed their arrests. The accounts collected by Human Rights Watch describe widespread house raids and arrests by the pro-Gaddafi forces, often in apparent retaliation for losses suffered by the Gaddafi forces at the hands of those supporting the NTC, as well as brutal beatings and torture by the Gaddafi forces of those detained at the base.

Mohammed Ramadan al-Barghout, 34, a physics teacher, told Human Rights Watch on September 10 that he had been detained by Gaddafi loyalists at his house in Umm el-Jershan in early June and taken to the Scouts base. He said he had seen about half of those later found in the mass grave alive in detention when he arrived, and that he had witnessed the brutal beatings of two brothers, Emhammed Al-Shatour, 17, and El-Hasmi Al-Shatour:

Emhammed Al-Shatour was beaten until his leg was broken. They were beating him in front of his father to try and make the father confess, right after I arrived at the Scouts base. They just grabbed Emhammed and tied him up and started beating him with a stick on his leg, a heavy wooden stick. His brother El-Hasmi was being beaten at the same time in the next room. They brought the boys’ father to witness the beating so he would talk and give them information. Two or three soldiers were doing the beatings until they got tired, and then others came to take over. Their father was crying, saying he didn’t know anything about the rebels. The Gaddafi soldiers were calling them rats, saying “you rats brought NATO, you dogs.”

Both sons and the father were among the victims who were exhumed.

The Gaddafi forces freed Mohammed al-Barghout the same day they arrested him, but two days later he fled home after learning that Gaddafi supporters were returning there to re-arrest him. After he fled, the soldiers went to his uncles’ house and detained his two uncles, Saleh al-Khamoushi, 50, and Miloud al-Khamoushi, 53. The soldiers then went to his father’s house and detained his father, Ramadan al-Barghout, 77. All three were among the victims found at the mass gravesite at al-Qawalish.  A third uncle of Mohammed al-Barghout, Ahmed al-Khamoushi, 33, was detained at the Scouts base checkpoint in early June after returning from Tunisia, and was also among those found in the mass gravesite.

A second witness, Zekri Salah al-Azeibi, 54, a retired school teacher, explained to Human Rights Watch the circumstances in which four of those executed were detained: his brother Abdel Qassim Salah al-Azeibi, 47, Abdel Qassim’s son Ashraf Abdel Qassim al-Azeibi, 19, and nephew Salim Suleiman Ali, 30, as well as a family friend, Abdel Hamid Gerada al-Aribi, 27. On June 6 the family decided to flee their homes due to approaching fighting, and drove to the Scouts base checkpoint towards Tripoli. At the checkpoint, the four men were detained, while the women and children were ordered to return to al-Qal’a, driven by another male relative. The family believes that Abdel Qassim may have been detained in order to rob him, as he was known to be a wealthy gold dealer and had more than one kilogram of gold in his car at the time. All four of the detained men are among the execution victims found in the mass grave.

Some of those detained at the Scouts base remain missing, and are also believed to have been killed. Omar SaadKhozam, 53, a postal worker, told Human Rights Watch he was detained at the Scouts base on June 3, as he returned from postal duties in Tripoli. He described how he witnessed the beating of one detainee, Yusef Mohammed Ajal, who was tied to a door frame and beaten until he lost consciousness. Afterwards, the Gaddafi forces took away the lifeless body of YusefAjal, who remains missing. Omar Khozam described the beatings he suffered:

The way they treated us was really bad – I had to seek medical treatment after I was released and still can’t see from my left eye. They made me take off my shirt and whipped me with electrical wire, and then they rubbed salt into the wounds to increase the pain. They wouldn’t even let us pray. And whenever some of them passed by and heard I was from al-Qal’a, they would come and beat me. Another detainee, I don’t know his name, was bound to a window and whipped with cables, and kicked. When they beat us to the ground, they would continue kicking us with their boots. They whipped and kicked us like this all the time, especially when they lost some of their soldiers in battles. 

Although it remains unclear which forces were in command of the Scouts base, former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the majority of the soldiers at the base belonged to the “Civil Guard” (Haras al-Sha’bi). Graffiti around the base identified their unit as the “Storm Forces.” The Civil Guard is a paramilitary group with a relationship to the revolutionary committees of the Gaddafi government.

However, former detainees said that members of the Libyan intelligence agencies were also present at the base. One detainee, who was briefly transferred from the Scouts base to a detention facility in Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch that the officers who transported him identified themselves at checkpoints as belonging to the “Main Operations Room of Abdullah Sanussi,” referring to Libya’s then-intelligence chief. Detainees added that members of Libya’s external intelligence service had also been present at the base, in possession of lists of people who were suspected of being in contact with anti-Gaddafi elements in Tunisia.

In addition to the Libyan Gaddafi loyalists at the base, one of the detainees and two persons who witnessed arrests said foreign African mercenaries were present, both at the Scouts base and during arrest raids. They said they knew they were foreigners because of their tribal scars and foreign accents and names.

“The evidence of mass executions by Gaddafi forces keeps on mounting and Libyans deserve to know that the killers will be brought to justice,” Bouckaert said. “The new government should guarantee that evidence of such terrible crimes will prompt a full accounting and real justice for the victims.”

Bodies recovered from the exhumed mass grave:

  1. Ahmed Mohammed al-Khamoushi, 33
  2. Omar Gergab Ahmed Gergab, 69
  3. Emhammed Mohammed Al-Shatour, 17
  4. El-Hashmi Mohammed Al-Shatour, 38
  5. Mohammed Emhammed Al-Shatour, 61 (father of Emhammed  and El-Hasmi As-Shatour)
  6. Ali Emhammed Al-Baden, 34
  7. Mohammed Suleiman Al-Baden, 71 (father of Ali Al-Baden)
  8. Talal el-Hadi Omar Areibi, 18
  9. Suleiman Abdel Salaam Abu al-QassimAjal, 23
  10. Mahmoud Mohammed el-Harari, 39
  11. Mohammed Emhammed el-Harari, 28
  12. Salim Suleiman Ali Suleiman, 30
  13. Emhammed Abu al-QassimEmhammedAjal, 69
  14. Abdel Salaam Abu al-QassimEmhammedAjal, 72 (brother of EmhammedAjal)
  15. Rabiye Said Omar Al-Azabi, 21
  16. Saleh Abdullah Ali Omar, 75
  17. Abdel Hamid Gerada el-TaherAreibi, 27
  18. Fuad Abdullah EmhammedGheida, 29
  19. Mohammed Emhammed Ahmed Gheida, 46
  20. Emhammed Ahmed Abdullah Gheida, 83 (father of Mohammed Gheida)
  21. Areibi Ali Othman Ashur, 55
  22. Saed Ali Othman Ashur, 58 (brother of AreibiAshur)
  23. Ashraf Abu al-Qassim Saleh Ahmed al-Azabi, 19
  24. Abu al-Qassim Saleh Ahmed al-Azabi, 47 (father of Ashraf al-Azabi)
  25. SalimYunisSalimKreir, 89
  26. HamedJadu al-Khalif (Syrian national), 51
  27. Abdullah Emhammed Suleiman El-Darduri, 53
  28. Unidentified male
  29. Unidentified male
  30. Unidentified male
  31. Unidentified male
  32. Unidentified male
  33. Unidentified male
  34. Unidentified male

Bodies identified at separate grave site but not yet exhumed:

  1. Ramadan Mohammed al-Barghout, 77
  2. Saleh Mohammed al-Khamoushi, 50
  3. Miloud Mohammed al-Khamoushi, 53

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