(Beirut) – Forces loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya appear to have executed captured fighters in Benghazi and desecrated corpses, Human Rights Watch said today. Video recordings posted online since January 2017 seem to show LNA fighters carrying out seven distinct unlawful executions of “extremists.”
The most recent video, which appeared on social media on July 24, 2017, shows the apparent summary execution on July 17 of 20 blindfolded men with their hands tied behind their backs in orange jumpsuits, whom the commander in charge accuses of “terrorism.” The executioners appear to be members of a special forces unit headed by Mahmoud al-Werfalli. The Army Special Forces in Benghazi, under the command of Wanis Bukhamada, are linked to the LNA, which is commanded by Gen. Khalifa Hiftar. The LNA is allied with the Interim Government, one of the three governments vying for legitimacy, international recognition, and control of territory in Libya.
On August 15, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli for the war crime of murder. He is wanted by the court for his alleged role in the killing of 33 people in seven incidents that took place in and around Benghazi between June 2016 and July 2017. The Interim Government should take immediate steps to facilitate the surrender of al-Werfalli to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said.
“The posted videos suggest that LNA-linked forces committed a series of grave war crimes over many months,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The ICC warrant for al-Werfalli is a wake-up call to other abusive commanders in Libya that one day their serious crimes could land them in a prison cell in The Hague.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed seven videos and several still images that appear to show distinct incidents of LNA-affiliated soldiers executing prisoners in their custody. Some of these videos and images show fighters desecrating the bodies of supposed fighters who opposed the LNA, including the burning and kicking of a corpse and posing for photographs with another corpse that had a leash tied around its neck.
In the video that was posted on social media on July 24, al-Werfalli and LNA soldiers are seen wearing the insignia of the Army Special Forces. Al-Werfalli reads out the execution judgment, identifies the unit, the date of July 17, and the capital offenses attributed to those in custody. He is the main executioner or supervisor of executions in six more video recordings of apparent summary executions of people accused of “terrorism” and committing crimes against the LNA.
The summary execution of fighters who have been captured or who have surrendered is a war crime.
Despite a commitment to investigate alleged crimes by its forces, the LNA has yet to announce the findings of any investigations or sanctions it has imposed on any of its members found to have committed violations. In a July 20 statement, the LNA rejected allegations made by the United Nations on July 18 that soldiers under al-Werfalli’s command were responsible for summary executions and that captured fighters in Benghazi were at “imminent risk of torture and even summary execution.”
The LNA said in its response that there was no evidence to substantiate the accusations of torture and executions and that any conclusions of the LNA’s investigative commission to uncover abuses in “unverified videos” would be made public.
Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the date when the videos and photos were taken, or the location where they were recorded. However, an analysis of the imagery revealed no indications that they had been doctored or were otherwise inauthentic. Human Rights Watch sought comment from the LNA spokesman but was unable to reach him. On August 8, Human Rights Watch emailed the LNA for comment on the videos and photographs that appear to show al-Werfalli presiding over or carrying out the execution of prisoners. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response.
Three of the seven videos appear to show al-Werfalli himself executing captured and unarmed men, individually or in groups. In three other videos, he appears to give orders to men in military uniform to execute unarmed detainees. In the seventh and most recent video to surface, a commander, who appears to be al-Werfalli, both gives orders and participates in the execution of the 20 unarmed, blindfolded prisoners in orange jumpsuits with their hands tied behind their backs.
The video starts by showing several incidents of crimes the captured men allegedly committed. The commander, who is dressed in fatigues, a black t-shirt, and black cap, then reads out the judgment of execution by firing squad against 18 of the men kneeling in four rows. The commander refers to the men as “terrorists” and says that a “field court” has found them guilty of “kidnapping, torturing, killing, bombing, slaying, and torturing the sons of the military establishment in particular and the Libyan people in general.”
The commander does not name any of the captured men or cite their affiliations. He says the date is July 17. Once the reading of the judgment is over, he orders armed men in military uniforms to execute the captured detainees row by row. The recording shows them doing so. Two more individuals are executed in the same way at the end of the video.
In another video recording posted on social media in June, a man who appears to be al-Werfalli is seen reciting religious texts and then ordering four men in fatigues, black t-shirts, and face-masks to shoot in the head four men kneeling in an open field. The captives are hooded and appear to have their hands bound behind their backs. Al-Werfalli does not name the victims but accuses them of crimes, including assassinations, and calls them Kharijites – a term for Muslims who rebelled against the Caliphate in the early ages of Islam. Al-Werfalli says that it is the month of Ramadan, which would mean June 2017.
Another undated video appears to show al-Werfalli reciting religious verses in a room while a man kneels on the floor with his arms behind his head. Other soldiers can be seen and heard in the background. Al-Werfalli accuses the man of being a member of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and then pulls out a handgun and shoots him in the back of the head, apparently killing him. Another undated video shows the apparent interrogation of this same man, who says he is Algerian.
On May 22, an undated video appeared online showing the apparent execution of two men: Emad Eddin al-Jazawi, a fighter with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, a coalition of fighters including extremists who oppose the LNA, and the son of a minister of the National Salvation Government, another of the rival governments. The video begins with al-Jazawi being interrogated and later shows him in a cage with another man, Haitham Jomaa al-Kafrawi, identified in the video as an Egyptian member of Al-Qaeda, who is also being interrogated. The recording ends with al-Jazawi and al-Kafrawi kneeling on the ground, backs to the camera, as al-Werfalli gives two soldiers an order to execute them. A photo bubble appears above the heads of the victims, showing photos of both men.
On May 15, al-Werfalli announced his resignation from the special forces, after he and his forces were accused of abuses, including looting and burning homes, as well as attacking a rescue division linked with the Interior Ministry in Benghazi that resulted in the killing of an officer. Al-Werfalli denied responsibility for those acts. However, the next day, the commander of the Special Forces, Wanis Bukhamada, rejected al-Werfalli’s resignation due to the “many sacrifices al-Werfalli” had made, and kept him in his position.
Armed conflict, insecurity, and political divisions have plagued Libya since May 2014, when General Hiftar announced a war to root out “terrorism” in Benghazi. As a result of armed conflicts in both the east and west, central authority collapsed and the three competing governments emerged, including the Interim Government, which the House of Representatives supports. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country. On July 5, General Hiftar announced the complete “liberation” of Benghazi from armed groups opposing the LNA, including extremists, but pockets of resistance remain.
The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has a mandate to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. Human Rights Watch’s research in Libya since 2011 has found rampant violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including mass long-term arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced displacement, and unlawful killings. In the face of mounting atrocities, Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to urgently pursue an investigation into ongoing grave crimes by all sides, including possible crimes against humanity.
In May, Bensouda said her office was committed to making the Libya situation a priority in 2017. Given the serious crimes committed in Libya and the challenges facing the authorities, the ICC’s mandate remains crucial to ending impunity in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.