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(Tripoli) – A Libyan diplomat who served as ambassador to France died less than 24 hours after he was detained by a Tripoli-based militia from the town of Zintan, Human Rights Watch said today. Dr. Omar Brebesh, who was detained on January 19, 2012, appears to have died from torture.

A preliminary autopsy report viewed by Human Rights Watch said the cause of death included multiple bodily injuries and fractured ribs. Photos of Brebesh’s body, seen by Human Rights Watch, show welts, cuts, and the apparent removal of toenails, indicating that he was tortured prior to death. Human Rights Watch also read a report by the judicial police in Tripoli, which said that Brebesh had died from torture and that an unnamed suspect had confessed to killing him.

“The torture and killing of detainees is sadly an ongoing activity by some Libyan militias,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These abusive militias will keep torturing people until they are held to account. Libya’s leaders should show the political will to prosecute people who commit serious crimes, regardless of their role in the uprising.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed reports that a Zintan prosecutor has opened an investigation into Brebesh’s death and said it should be prompt and independent. Anyone found responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Libyan government should send a message that it will not tolerate torture and vigilante justice,” Whitson said. “The rule of law, and punishment for crimes, apply to all Libyans, including those who fought against Muammar Gaddafi.”

Brebesh, 62, served in the Libyan embassy to France from 2004 to 2008, first as cultural attaché, and then as acting ambassador for the last nine months of his tour. He continued work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Gaddafi government during the 2011 uprising. He was working as a lawyer at the ministry in Tripoli under the post-Gaddafi transitional government at the time of his death. An official at the ministry told Human Rights Watch that he saw Brebesh at work 10 days before his death, and he appeared to be in good health.

According to Brebesh’s son Ziad, on January 19, his father voluntarily submitted to an investigation by the Al-Shohada Ashura militia at their base in the Tripoli neighborhood of Crimea. Brebesh had been called there for questioning by Commander Khalid al-Blehzi.

Brebesh entered the base at 5:30 p.m., said Ziad, who escorted his father. Ziad said he stayed inside for tea before being told to wait outside for the interrogation. After about 45 minutes, militia members took Ziad away to retrieve one of the family cars and a firearm. He returned later that night but was prevented from entering the area where his father was being interrogated.

The next day, January 20, following a visit to the Al-Shohada Ashura base, the family heard that Brebesh’s body had appeared at a hospital in Zintan, about 100 km southwest of Tripoli. Ziad’s brother Muhammad went there in the evening and described what he saw:

I saw his face. There was blood on his nose and mouth. But I didn’t see the rest of his body or his face from the other side. There was a bump on his forehead. After that, I kissed him and that was it. Later, when we saw the other side of his face at the hospital in Tripoli, it looked like his jaw was broken, like his face was not in the right place.

Human Rights Watch viewed photographs of Brebesh’s body provided by the family. They revealed welts and extensive bruising on the abdomen, lacerations on both legs, and a large wound on the sole of the left foot. Some of his toenails appear to have been removed.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Libya currently has about 8,500 detainees in roughly 60 facilities. The majority of these facilities are run by militias with informal relationships to the state. The government should accelerate its efforts to bring all detainees under its authority, and give them prompt judicial reviews, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents of torture and abuse by Libyan armed groups in recent months.

On January 26, the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres announced that it had suspended its work in Misrata detention centers, citing torture and abuse there. 

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