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(Beirut) – At least 51 people have died in a broadening wave of apparent political assassinations in the cities of Benghazi and Derna in volatile eastern Libya. Authorities have not prosecuted anyone for these crimes, and have no suspects in custody, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine. 

The July 26, 2013, killing of Abdulasalam Elmessmary, was the first of a political activist since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted. The assassination appeared to signal a new turn in the violence with potentially serious implications for Libya’s stability. The other victims include two judges and at least 44 serving members of the security forces, most of whom had held positions in Gaddafi’s government. At least six were high-ranking officers under Gaddafi.

“What started as assassinations of members of the police, internal security apparatus, and military intelligence has been further aggravated by the killing of judges and a political activist,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The failure to hold anyone accountable highlights the government’s failure to build a functioning justice system.”

According to cases documented by Human Rights Watch, political assassinations in Benghazi and Derna peaked in the second half of 2012, and again in January and July 2013. While there have been reports of assassinations in other parts of the country, they have mostly been centered in the east.

Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives, friends or witnesses of eight of the victims. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that as far as they could determine, Libyan law enforcement officials had not conducted comprehensive investigations. They said law enforcement agents did not investigate at the crime scene, summon any potential witnesses, or provide information to the families about their investigations.

Law enforcement officials acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that they had not concluded any of the investigations despite trying to conduct investigations into the assassinations. They said they lacked sophisticated means to investigate, faced many obstacles due to the prevailing security situation, and lacked the means to summon witnesses without the use of force.

No groups or individuals have claimed responsibility for the assassinations. The only person known to have been arrested escaped.

On July 23, Interior Minister Mohammad Khalifa al-Sheikh said at a news conference that “people with a past criminal record,” were behind the killings. He said that some of their identities were known but could not be revealed since the information was classified, and that the government was investigating and collecting information.

On July 28, Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said the government was determined to bring to justice “those responsible for the assassinations” in Benghazi and Derna. He said the government would consider accepting the support of an international forensics team.

“Myriad armed groups and criminals with various agendas are benefiting from a weak and dysfunctional law enforcement system where they can kill even police and judges with impunity,” Stork said. “Unless the government takes urgent steps to actually turn its own pledges into action and make building its police and criminal investigation units a priority, there is a real risk of a further surge in violence.”

The Death Toll
In the absence of comprehensive official figures, Human Rights Watch has investigated and documented killings of 51 victims of apparent political assassinations, though the actual number is probably higher. The documented cases do not include assassinations of officers and members of the security forces committed during the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, it is the only compilation of apparent political assassinations in Eastern Libya since the toppling of Gaddafi.

Human Rights Watch interviewed families, friends or witnesses of eight victims and reviewed information provided by activists, judges, members of the prosecution, and media reports. A local nongovernmental organization provided a list of 12 assassinations and 2 kidnappings of members of the Benghazi police force. Human Rights Watch could not verify ranks and affiliation to the state security forces of at least seven of the victims, or the dates of their deaths.

According to the information obtained by Human Rights Watch, 12 victims were apparently killed by explosive devices targeting their cars. The rest were shot, most in drive-by shootings, in front of their homes or workplaces, or in their cars.

The following are some of the most recent killings, in June and July. None of the assailants have been identified:

  • On July 30, Ahmed Farraj al-Barnawi, commander of the Benghazi Protection Force, was killed by an explosive device that targeted his home in Benghazi.
  • On July 26, Colonel Khatab Younis al-Zway and retired Colonel Salam al-Sarrah were shot to death in two separate incidents in Benghazi.
  • On July 8, in Benghazi, an explosive device targeted the car of Col. Fawzi Mohamed Ali al-Burki, a former internal security apparatus officer under Gaddafi, killing him.
  • On July 4, a drive-by shooting in Benghazi, an apparent assassination attempt on Col. Hamed al-Hassi, killed two men. Al-Hassi survived.  He was an air force officer under Gaddafi, and commands the military wing of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, a movement that seeks greater autonomy for eastern Libya.
  • On June 26, an explosive device attached to his car killed Jomaa al-Misrati, a commander of an infantry brigade in the Libyan army who served as a military intelligence officer under Gaddafi. Al-Misrati’s car exploded 150 meters from his house in Benghazi.

In January, Abdelsalam al-Mahdawi, director of the Benghazi police Criminal Investigation Department, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Benghazi. His family told Human Rights Watch on June 3 that they have had no news of his fate. Al-Mahdawi was abducted one month after the department made its only arrest in relation to the political assassinations in Benghazi.

Police Failure to Act
The Criminal Investigation Department is tasked with conducting criminal investigations, collecting forensics evidence, identifying and questioning witnesses and referring case files to the General Prosecutor’s Office or the Military Attorney’s office for prosecution. But it has not concluded its investigations into any of these assassinations. Nor has it concluded investigations into the dozens of kidnappings, attempted assassinations, and attacks on police and military structures in Benghazi in 2012 and 2013 that appear to follow the same pattern as the political assassinations targeting mainly members of the security forces.

Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses to the crimes and relatives and friends of eight of the men assassinated in Benghazi who had served in various security agencies under Gaddafi before joining the armed opposition in the 2011 revolt to oust him. Six of the families said that the police, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the Military Prosecutor had failed to investigate, to conclude an investigation, or to let the families know what was happening.

The eight victims included Faraj Mohamed Idriss Drissi, Suleiman Bouzreidah and Mohamed Haddiya al-Fitouri. They were gunned down in separate incidents by masked assailants riding in cars, either while the victims were in front of their houses or walking on the streets, their relatives told Human Rights Watch. Two of the more recent victims, Jomaa al-Misrati and Fawzi al-Burki, were killed by explosive devices planted in their cars.

Izzeddin Abdelhafith al-Ghweili, acting head of Benghazi Police Criminal Investigation Department, told Human Rights Watch during an interview in June:

In the absence of functioning state institutions, amid a proliferation of arms and of various active armed groups, we cannot work according to our usual procedures. The main issue we face with witnesses is that they are scared and often do not show up if they’ve been summoned. All of these assassination cases remain unresolved. We do not know who our enemies are anymore – there are too many of them.

He said that Ali al-Fezzani, the only person arrested and detained in relation to the assassinations in Benghazi, managed to flee from prison in Tripoli.

Al-Fezzani was arrested on December 16, 2012, and initially confessed to killings including Drissi, chief of the Benghazi Security Directorate, and Jomaa al-Kadiki, an air force officer under Gaddafi. After al-Fezzani was detained at the Benghazi Criminal Investigation Department, armed protesters, angry over reports that al-Fezzani had been tortured by the police, attacked the department headquarters on December 20.

Al-Ghweili said that the attackers burned parts of the building and stole furniture and surveillance cameras. Four people were killed, including a police officer. The police hurriedly transferred al-Fezzani to al-Hadhba, a detention facility in Tripoli under the authority of the Justice Ministry and within the premises of the National Guard headquarters. Al-Fezzani escaped from al-Hadhba in May and remains at large.

On December 21, al-Marghani, the justice minister, announced at a news conference that the General Prosecutor’s Office would investigate al-Fezzani’s detention and torture claims. At the news conference, Khalid al-Sharif, head of the al-Hadhba corrections facility, said that he had seen no marks from torture on al-Fezzani.

A video posted online shows al-Fezzani being interrogated, apparently confessing to being an assassin responsible for killing several people, including Drissi, and knowing about the killings of several other officers. In the video, al-Fezzani says that commanders of Islamist militias operating in Eastern Libya gave orders for the killing of former officers and that they considered it acceptable as it was “halal” [permitted] to kill army officers and people affiliated with the current government.

A second video taken by unidentified people and posted online after he arrived in Tripoli shows al-Fezzani retracting his confession, saying he had not assassinated anyone and had confessed under torture. 

Al-Ghweili denied al-Fezzani’s accusations that he had been tortured while in the custody of the Benghazi CID.

No group or individual has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The fact that most of the attacks targeted Gaddafi-era officers in the Benghazi and Derna area and the planned and efficient manner of the killings suggest that they are related and part of a pattern or campaign against individuals with a particular political profile, Human Rights Watch said.

Mohamed al-Hizaji, official spokesman of the Benghazi Joint Security Operations, a security apparatus coordinating activities of the Army, Police and intelligence services, highlighted the problems the authorities face in investigating crimes since Qaddafi’s ouster. He told Human Rights Watch in July that the authorities “face many obstacles” when they “try to conduct investigations,” and had not been given the means to do so. He said the “types of criminals and methods used” had changed in recent months, and had become even “more dangerous.” The forces only recently began to receive means and equipment needed to conduct investigations, he said.

A prosecutor in Benghazi who did not wish to be named told Human Rights Watch the unresolved cases of unlawful killings were currently “stuck at the level of police investigations” and that prosecutors could only investigate if they had access to “evidence, and witnesses to question.” He confirmed the lack of an official “census” of these assassination cases and said they dated back to the beginning of the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, as the first such killing was committed in March 2011.

He said the prosecutor’s office dealt with cases on an individual basis and did not link the crimes unless they were carried out by the same person. “I cannot conduct my work according to trends – I need hard facts,” he said. The prosecutor’s office had very limited investigative resources and faced difficulties in expanding investigations and including forensic evidence, due to the lack of more sophisticated tools such as “DNA testing, which is only available in Tripoli,” he said.

On the prosecutors’ powers to summon and question witnesses, he said: “The reality is that while we can issue arrest orders, there is no one to implement them and to go and fetch someone for questioning. Who will do that? Our work depends very much on collaboration with the police, intelligence services.”

Broader Security Issues
The assassinations should be seen in the context of a general lack of security in Benghazi and the rest of the eastern region, particularly Derna.

Since the end of the 2011, conflict, Benghazi has experienced large-scale attacks by various militias on state security forces facilities and army positions, as well as armed clashes between militia factions and attacks on foreign diplomatic missions. On June 8, the most recent large-scale clashes in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of 32 people, most of them protesters, members of the Army Special Forces unit, and members of militias in what became known as “Black Saturday.”

Foreign diplomatic missions and international organizations have been the targets of violence since 2012. Most recently, in January, gunmen opened fire on the Italian consul’s car in Benghazi. In April 2012, unidentified assailants attacked a convoy in Benghazi carrying the United Nations Special envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, and in June 2012, assailants attacked a British embassy convoy.

In May 2012, the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were attacked. A militia, the “Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade,” claimed responsibility, accusing the ICRC of proselytizing for Christianity, including distributing Bibles. No one was prosecuted for the attacks.

And on September 11, 2012, armed groups attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his aides. As a result, diplomatic missions and international organizations withdrew their permanent presence from Benghazi. In May, the FBI released photos of six people present during the attacks on the US compound. No one is known to have been charged with the killings in Libya, though, and the General Prosecutor’s Office has yet to conclude its investigations into these cases. US news media reported on August 7 that the US Justice Department had filed murder charges in the case, but no arrests apparently have been made in Libya.

Some of the assassinations of officers between 2012 and 2013 appear related to the killing on July 28, 2011, of General Abdelfatah Younis, chief of staff of the anti-Gaddafi brigades, operating under the National Transitional Council.

A Benghazi Military Court judge who summoned Younis in July 2011 for questioning from the front lines over his alleged continued ties to the former regime was found dead on July 28, 2012, along with two of his aides. Jomaa Obaidi al-Jazawi, one of three judges investigating Younis’s death, was assassinated in June 2012 by unidentified assailants in front of a mosque in Benghazi.

Relatives of Bouzreidah, chief of military intelligence, and al-Fitouri, in charge of weapons and ammunition of the national army, said both men had been appointed directly by Younis shortly after the outbreak of the 2011 uprising. Bouzreidah was killed near his home in Benghazi in July 2012, and al-Fitouri was killed in Benghazi in August 2012.

The Military Court in Benghazi summoned the former chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdeljalil, to question him over his alleged role in approving the “arrest” of Younis. After widespread controversy, the court dropped the case against Abdeljalil and referred it to the Military Supreme Court. No further progress in identifying Younis’s assassins has been announced.

Accounts by Families and Friends
Lt. Col. Abdelsalam al-Mahdawi, 45, headed the Benghazi Police Criminal Investigation Department. Unidentified masked armed men kidnapped him on January 2, 2013, while he was driving with acquaintances down a busy street in Benghazi after work. Al-Mahdawi was the only member of the group pulled from the car and taken away to an unknown location. A father of three, al-Mahdawi, had worked in the investigations department for 10 years, and was appointed its head just four days before his kidnapping. No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction and no one has been arrested.

His brother, Osama al-Mahdawi, told Human Rights Watch:

For six months, we haven’t heard anything. No one has called us. No one has made any demands… We went to the CID and filed a complaint and they formed an investigation committee, yet, to date, no one was arrested in my brother’s case. The armed groups are stronger than the courts.

Abdullah Dibus, a friend of al-Mahdawi who was in the car with him when he was seized, said:

After the incident, we [the two witnesses] went straight to the CID to report it. We were asked questions and the next day we were called back to the CID for more questioning. We were never approached by the prosecutor’s office. Although the family requested that the Ministry of Interior set up a committee to investigate the incident, nothing has happened so far.

Faraj Mohamed Idriss Drissi, 57, was the chief of the Benghazi Security Directorate and father of 11. On November 20, 2012, unidentified assailants gunned him down in front of his house in Sabri district in Benghazi. His family, hearing gunshots late at night as Drissi was coming home from work, rushed to the front gate, where they found his bullet-ridden body. He died on the spot, in front of some of his children. Under Gaddafi, Drissi was a colonel in the Security Directorate [police department] of Benghazi. After the uprising he became chief of the Security Directorate in Benghazi, a post he held until his assassination.

Drissi’s widow, Zainab Abdelkarim Mohamed, told Human Rights Watch that her husband had spoken several times with the media about his intent to empty Benghazi of illegal arms and crime. “This is when the threats started,” she said. “I begged him to retire but he refused.” Although neighbors called the police and other relevant authorities to report the killing, Drissi’s widow said she does not remember seeing any police or other security forces in in the area to conduct investigations or question witnesses.

Brig. Gen. Mohamed Hadiyya al-Fitouri, 63, was in charge of weapons and ammunition for the Libyan Army in eastern Libya under Gaddafi. Al-Fitouri retained his position after the 2011 conflict, according to his family, at the explicit wish of General Younis. Al-Fitouri was killed on August 10, 2012, during Ramadan, as he walked home with an elderly neighbor from a nearby mosque.

Al-Fitouri’s family told Human Rights Watch that a witness told them the attackers had first tried to push al-Fitouri into a waiting car, as they shouted “traitor” and “infidel.” When they failed, they shot him in the head, the heart, hand, and leg. He died instantly. His family said that no one has been arrested and the only witness to the incident – the neighbor – has not been questioned due to his fragility and advanced age. 

“No authorities came here to ask us about the incident concerning my husband’s death,” Amal al-Barghatial, Fitouri’s widow, told Human Rights Watch in the family home in Benghazi in June 2013. “No one from the prosecution contacted us. We know of no investigation.”

Col. Suleiman Bouzreidah, 60, a father of 10, was killed on July 28, 2012, as he headed to a mosque near his home. He was the head of investigations in the military intelligence unit under Gaddafi, and later head of military intelligence for the rebels in Benghazi during the 2011 conflict, a role in which he continued until he resigned a month before his death. His family told Human Rights Watch during a visit in June 2013 that a car carrying several armed men, some of them masked, shot Bouzreidah in his cheek and forehead as it drove past, and he died immediately.

Bouzreidah effectively took over the position under the transitional council that had been held by Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s chief of intelligence, who is in custody in Libya and is sought by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges during the 2011 conflict. Bouzreidah assumed the position of chief of military intelligence on February 23, 2011, just days after the uprising broke out and rebels took control of Benghazi. His family said that three witnesses to Bouzreidah’s murder gave statements to the police about the incident but that they knew of no arrests in the case.

Bouzreidah’s widow, said she had been afraid for her husband’s life after he accepted the position as head of military intelligence in February 2011, and was disappointed with the government, which “did not do anything” for the family, who  still do not know the killers’ identities.

Bouzreidah’s son, Yazeed, said the deputy prosecutor in charge of the case had told the family he was capable only of “collecting files [of the cases] at this stage” and did not have sufficient manpower to conduct any “proper investigations.” He said that a witness to the killing who had given a statement to the police was threatened in the street a short time later by unidentified men, who told him, “if you say anything at all [about the incident] then we will kill you”:

No one from the authorities came to the street where my father died to ask any questions, but instead we [the family] brought some of the witnesses to the CID to give their statements. On the third day of condolences after the funeral, one of the witnesses was threatened and told if he dared say anything about the incident he would be killed. Of course we suspect certain people affiliated with terrorist Islamist networks here in Benghazi to be behind this crime, but we have no evidence.

Anis Ali al-Gehani, 22, was a student and brother-in-Law of Naji Hammad, a police officer who started “Save Benghazi Friday,” a demonstration against militias in Benghazi soon after the attack on the US consulate. Al-Gehani was killed on December 3, 2012.  He had been staying with his sister, in Benghazi while Hammad was in Tripoli.

Hammad told Human Rights Watch in June that on the morning of December 3, 2012, al-Gehani was warming the car up to drop his sister off at work when he was shot by unknown armed men and died of multiple gunshot wounds in his  extremities, chest and head. One witness told the family he saw four masked, bearded men in the car, family members said. They said the police were investigating but that no one has been arrested.

Hammad said he believed his brother-in-law was killed by mistake, and that killers were trying to kill Hammad for his activism and outspoken stance toward the militias and Islamists.

To the government of Libya:

  • Establish impartial, transparent, and independent investigations into all assassinations committed in Libya after the end of the 2011 conflict to oust Muammar Gaddafi leading to the identification and prosecution of those responsible;
  • Ensure that anyone detained in relation to these assassinations has access to legal representation and is treated in accordance with international due process standards including prompt judicial review and prompt charging. Make public the list of those detained in relation to the killings;
  • Ensure protection of law enforcement agents during evidence gathering and the entire investigative procedures;
  • Provide adequate protection to witnesses, lawyers, judges, court officials and prosecutors. Provide judicial police and military police with adequate training and equipment to ensure security of all those involved in the judicial procedures both at civil and military courts;
  • Provide criminal investigation departments with sufficient means to carry out sophisticated investigations, including necessary equipment and adequate training;
  •  Provide criminal investigation agents with proper training to bring their performance into line with international standards; and
  • Seek financial and technical support from the UN and donor governments to strengthen criminal investigations for these and other crimes.

To the United Nations Mission in Libya (UNSMIL):

  • Publicly press the Libyan government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.

To the international community – in particular governments of the US, UK, France, and Italy:

  • Provide technical support to criminal investigation departments to investigate the assassinations since the end of the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, to ensure a credible and transparent process; and
  • Ensure financial support for rule of law and justice programs to ensure that courts are able to operate fairly and according to international legal standards.

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