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Counting the Dead in Benghazi

The steady drumbeat of killings has left Libyans despairing about whether anyone can bring security to their volatile country.

Published in: Foreign Policy

When I think of Benghazi, in my mind I am counting the dead: How many today, how many the week before, how many this year, how many since 2011? In my three years in Libya, this is one of my most depressing duties. The number of unlawful killings has been steadily increasing, and has now reached an average of one murder a day. The killers' brutality is also growing.

The failure of authorities to deal with the violence now threatens to bring about a total collapse of Libya's key institutions. In May, retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar took matters into his own hands, launching "Operation Dignity" -- an armed campaign aimed at fighting Islamist militia "terrorists," and thus ending the bloodshed. The operation began in Benghazi and has spread to Tripoli and elsewhere. At least 75 people were killed in militia clashes in Benghazi on May 16 and 17, and 140 were injured. On May 19, militias said to be from the western city of Zintan joined Haftar's campaign and attacked the parliament building in Tripoli, resulting in at least four dead and 90 injured.

The government's reaction -- declaring the operation a "coup" and calling for a no-fly zone over Benghazi -- did little to slow events. On May 28, the air force in Benghazi, which is aligned with Haftar, again targeted headquarters of Islamist militias, including the February 17 Brigade and Ansar al Sharia. Haftar's forces renewed their air strikes on Islamist militia bases on June 1, triggering clashes that injured dozens and resulted in the deaths of at least eight people.

This latest spasm of violence is not unique. Benghazi is marked by near-daily assassinations and attacks on military and security posts. The eastern region, in and around the city of Derna, is notorious for the prevalence of Islamist militias.

The steady drumbeat of violence over the past three years has undermined the authority of successive governments, and laid the groundwork for Haftar's campaign. The earliest attacks were straightforward, targeting the Qaddafi-era state security forces and judiciary. But that has now changed: The victims now include journalists and activists who opposed former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi during the 2011 uprising, but who dare to criticize the militias, Libya's new masters.

I have heard dozens of judges, activists, and journalists in Benghazi express helplessness and fear of being next in line. Many have fled as a result. Some have also voiced concerns that inaction by authorities means acquiescence. "What are they [the government] waiting for?" one prominent former judge asked me. "Do they want us all to get killed before they respond?"

Popular protests against the militias have only led to more bloodshed. In November, a largely peaceful demonstration turned violent in Tripoli, as demonstrators marched to a neighborhood occupied largely by militias from Misrata and called on them to quit the capital. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Misrata militias were the first to open fire on the unarmed protesters. At least 48 people were killed in ensuing clashes, which have yielded neither an investigation nor any prosecutions.

Total figures of victims are hard to come by under the current situation of lawlessness. In January, a report prepared by a Libyan parliamentary committee listed 643 killings in 2013. That same month, Libya's general prosecutor told me his office had files on 206 killings since the end of the 2011 uprising, but had not concluded any investigations. He blamed the police and interior ministry's lack of authority to conduct arrests for the stalled justice process, but assured us the investigations were "ongoing."

In Benghazi and Derna, HRW found that roughly 35 people have been killed in seemingly targeted assassinations each month, on average, from January to May of this year. The violence is also spreading: The capital has witnessed several assassinations and attacks on security forces, while the northeastern city of Sirte has also been wracked by violence.

In Benghazi, top state security officials and outspoken journalists and activists have been targeted for death. Miftah Bouzeid, the editor-in-chief of Burniq newspaper known for his vocal opposition to Islamist militias, became the latest high-profile victim when he was shot dead on May 26. Ibrahim al-Sanussi Agilah, head of intelligence for the eastern region, was gunned down in his car on May 8. On July 26, 2013, prominent political activist Abdelsalam Elmessmary, who had denounced the murders and criticized Islamist groups three days earlier during a TV appearance, was killed while walking home.

There have been at least 12 attacks against media headquarters in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Derna, in addition to dozens of threats, assaults, and kidnappings of journalists this year alone. For example, Hassan al-Bakush, a young journalist with a local TV station, survived two assassination attempts in Benghazi this May.

Foreigners living in Libya have not escaped the violence. An American school teacher, seven Egyptian Copts, a couple from New Zealand and Britain, and a French engineer have all been killed in Benghazi during the last six months.

The assassinations have been driven by revenge killings, score-settling, tribal feuds, religious disagreements and ordinary criminal acts. However, families of many victims, as well as media outlets and commentators, often point the finger at Islamist militias -- particularly when the victims are members of state security forces and the judiciary.

Others accuse Qaddafi "loyalists" of responsibility. When I met then Interior Minister Ashour Shwail in February 2013, he blamed pro-Qaddafi "sleeper cells" outside Libya for stoking the violence. He said the interim government had entered into negotiations with "Islamist groups" about their presence and activities in Benghazi. However, the negotiations, such as they were, have not slowed the killing.

For all these crimes, there have been no real investigations, no known arrests (except of one man, who managed to break out of prison in May 2013), and no known prosecutions. The insecurity has also forced the closure of courts and prosecutors' offices in Benghazi and Derna. As a result, Libya's justice sector is teetering on the brink of collapse. And the growing impunity only fuels the violence.

Libyans are tiring of the chaos. A taxi driver in Tripoli told me recently he "hated Qaddafi," but wished for a Qaddafi to bring back some order. This nostalgic thinking is not unique, and could derail Libya's progress.

Ever since Qaddafi's fall, Libya's government has failed to afford its citizens the protections and security they deserve. The laws passed by the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected parliament, served to inflame a tense political environment: Instead of reforming a host of Qaddafi-era laws that violate Libyans' basic freedoms, the GNC simply pushed through a political isolation law, which fostered further divisions through its vague criteria excluding Qaddafi-era officials and government employees from public office. The GNC also failed to reverse a 2012 law that grants immunity from prosecution for acts "promoting or protecting the [2011] revolution," which in practice propagated a culture of impunity and selective justice.

But the international community -- and particularly those countries that participated in the NATO-led air campaign -- has also failed to make good on its repeated promises to help Libyans rebuild their country. The U.N. Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya in the name of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, and therefore has a special responsibility to address grave ongoing crimes, including crimes against humanity and mass unlawful killings. And yet despite its own resolution pledging to remain "seized" of the situation in Libya, it has tragically failed to do so. To send an unambiguous signal, it should add Libyan officials and militia leaders responsible for serious human rights abuses to the U.N. sanctions list, as envisioned in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970.

Instead of patting a weak government on the back, concerned countries should focus on Libya's fragmented justice and security sector. They will need a broader vision than what has so far been on display: The current crisis can't be fixed with only the usual post-conflict capacity-building and training workshops.

There is no easy answer to what happens next, and no magic wand. Libyan officials should make every effort to support the justice sector and keep the prosecutions ongoing -- and the international community should help them. Since security is a key factor, it is vital to significantly strengthen the judicial police, responsible for protecting prisons and courtrooms. Without a functioning legal system, the house of cards that is the Libyan state will collapse.

Hanan Salah is the Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @hananHRW

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