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(New York) – The brutal killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Coptic Christians held captive by a Libyan extremist group was a war crime for which those responsible must be held to account. Libyan authorities should take immediate steps to bring the perpetrators to justice, to the extent that this is currently possible, and the United Nations should establish a mechanism to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

The armed group holding the men has pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS.) A video published on February 15, 2015, showed armed men beheading a group of 21 men, most or all of them Egyptian Copts working in Libya, on a beach thought to be close to the city of Sirte in western Libya. On February 16, Egypt said its air force had carried out air strikes in response to the killings, targeting Islamist militants in Derna, eastern Libya. A Derna resident told Human Rights Watch the air strikes killed at least six civilians.

“ISIS is again horrifying the world by perpetrating war crimes, this time showing no mercy in Libya,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “But any military engagement with ISIS should take all possible steps to spare civilian lives.”

The UN should establish an international investigative mechanism, or appoint a special rapporteur, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya, with view towards prosecution, Human Rights Watch said. The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor should examine this incident, together with other serious ongoing crimes in Libya, with a view to determining whether further investigations are warranted. The murder of civilians by members of a party to an armed conflict is a war crime.

A Derna resident told Human Rights Watch by email that he knew of eight air strikes, beginning at around 6 a.m. on February 16 that targeted Aljabel Company compound in Derna, where police loyal to the extremist group are based, and al Shayha, a residential area. The resident said the attacks had killed six civilians, including a woman and her three children, members of the al-Kharshofi family; Attia Alshaari, a man aged 68; and Issam Maayouf, a man in his twenties. The resident said the father of the dead children was wounded and taken to the intensive care unit of al-Hreish hospital in Derna. Human Rights Watch was not able to reach the hospital staff to confirm this information.

Libya and Egypt should both conduct investigations into the civilian casualties of these air strikes, and Egypt needs to take steps to minimize such casualties.

The Libyan Air Force loyal to the internationally recognized government said that it too conducted air strikes on Islamist positions in Derna on February 16, killing 40 to 50 militants. The Libyan Army Chief of Staff issued a statement confirming coordination between Egypt and Libya in conducting the air strikes in Derna against militant positions.

The Egyptian Copts, who numbered at least 20 according to images released by ISIS, went missing in December 2014 and January 2015 in Sirte. Earlier in February, ISIS published photos in its online magazine of those they claimed were the missing Egyptian nationals, who were pictured wearing orange suits and kneeling on a beach in front of black-clad executioners brandishing knives. The video published on February 16 shows the same setting and seemingly the same victims, and their beheading by men dressed in black. At least 13 of the victims were from the Egyptian village of Al-Our, according to a recent news report, and had gone to work in Libya to support their families.

In November 2014, extremist groups in eastern Libya publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS and installed a public administration, an Islamic Police force and an Islamic Court in Derna, which they say is a part of the Barqa Province of the Islamic State. There they conducted public extrajudicial executions and public floggings. At least two other groups claim affiliation to ISIS in what they refer to as the Tripoli and Fezzan Provinces, respectively western Libya including the capital, and southern Libya. These groups have claimed several attacks, including a January 27 attack on a luxury hotel in Tripoli that killed nine civilians and two of the attackers.

Egyptians – particularly those of Coptic faith and truck drivers carrying goods back and forth from Egypt – have been targeted for abduction or killing in Libya around a dozen times since late 2013, according to a timeline compiled by the Ahram Online news website. In December, an Egyptian Coptic Christian girl was found dead after armed men in Sirte killed her parents and abducted her.

Militant Libyan factions have been embroiled in an armed conflict that began in eastern Libya in May 2014 and spread to western Libya in July. The fighting has left the country with two rival governments: the internationally recognized government based at al-Bayda in eastern Libya and a self-proclaimed government that controls Tripoli and parts of western Libya. Both claim to be the legitimate government of all of Libya, but neither is able to assert control over the whole territory. Meanwhile, Libya’s institutions, particularly its judiciary, are in a state of near- collapse in most key cities, as courts and prosecutors have suspended their activities due to direct targeting of judges and prosecutors and the general deterioration in security.

Consecutive interim authorities and elected governments have been unable to rein in abusive militias that have proliferated since the end of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, allowing them to operate with total impunity. Libyan authorities that currently exercise control in eastern and western Libya should require their forces to comply with international law and take all possible steps to ensure that those who commit atrocities, such as the killings of the Egyptian Copts or other abuses, are held to account.

All parties to the conflicts in Libya, which now includes Egypt, are required to abide by the laws of war. This requires them to take all feasible steps to protect civilians. Certain serious violations of the laws of war, when committed with criminal intent, are war crimes. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the ICC, which has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, under UN Security Council resolution 1970.

The ICC prosecutor, who has an ongoing mandate in Libya, has not pursued additional cases there, citing security concerns and lack of resources as obstacles to further probes by her office. ICC investigations in Libya therefore remain limited to cases from 2011 involving officials of the former Gaddafi government, despite ongoing serious crimes that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Member countries of the UN Human Rights Council should establish an investigative mechanism or appoint a Special Rapporteur on Libya to investigate serious and widespread human rights violations, with the view to ensure that those responsible are held to account. The potential violations should include those that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In 2014 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2174, which threatens perpetrators of serious crimes with sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, but so far has failed to deliver on the threat.

“Instead of issuing empty threats, international players should act on their promises to identify and punish the perpetrators of war crimes,” Whitson said. “Failure to act now will only result in more horrific crimes and more civilian victims.”

Please see below for names of the 21 dead.

List of victims of mass execution according to Elwatan news

  1. Milad Makeen Zaki
  2. Abanub Ayad Attiya
  3. Majid Suleiman Shehata
  4. Yousuf Shukri Yunan
  5. Kirollos Shukri Fawzi
  6. Bishoy Estefanus Kamel
  7. Samuel Estefanus Kamel
  8. Malak Ibrahim Sinyout
  9. Tawadros Yousuf Tawadros
  10. Girgis Milad Sinyout
  11. Mina Fayez Aziz
  12. Hani Abdelmessih Salib
  13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
  14. Samuel Alham Wilson
  15. Unnamed worker from Awr village
  16. Ezzat Bishri Naseef
  17. Lucas Nagaty
  18. Gaber Munir Adly
  19. Essam Baddar Samir
  20. Malak Farag Abram
  21. Sameh Salah Farouq

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