(Beirut) – A visit to Libya by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor has reignited hope for long-delayed justice for the victims of a militia that controlled a town during the 2019-2020 battle for Tripoli, the capital, Human Rights Watch said today.
Members of the militia, known as al-Kaniyat, and their affiliates detained, tortured, disappeared, and executed people in at least four detention facilities while they controlled the town of Tarhouna. They sided with the Libyan Armed Arab Forces under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, in attacking the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). No one has been brought to trial for the abuses.
“If the Libyan authorities cannot bring a measure of domestic accountability for the horrors against the people of Tarhouna, then the ICC prosecutor should investigate the crimes that fall within the court’s jurisdiction,” said Hanan Salah, associate director at Human Rights Watch. “Relatives of the hundreds who were arbitrarily detained and tortured, or disappeared and later found in mass graves are still waiting for justice.”
The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. In November 2022, the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, conducted an official mission to Libya. In Tarhouna, he visited prisons previously operated by al-Kaniyat and the sites of mass graves, and met with families of victims of abuses attributed to al-Kaniyat.
Human Rights Watch, in March, interviewed four men in Tarhouna who said that they and other relatives were held in four detention facilities in Tarhouna during the 2019-2020 Tripoli conflict. All four said they were held incommunicado for the duration of their detention, without any judicial process or access to their families or lawyers, and described ill-treatment, torture, and unlawful executions in the prisons.
Researchers also met with a relative of 10 people whose bodies were found in mass graves after their detention by al-Kaniyat and their associates. The researchers visited all four detention locations and all known sites of mass graves in Tarhouna. Researchers also met with Tarhouna municipal authorities, the Public Authority for the Search and Identification of the Missing, and the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigations Department.
The bodies of some of those seized by the militia were later found in unmarked mass graves around Tarhouna, 93 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. Of the 261 bodies exhumed since June 2020 from these graves, 160 have been identified by the Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons, an agency attached to the Council of Ministers.
Khan offered technical assistance from the ICC with forensic work. While in Benghazi, Khan met with Hiftar and told him that the ICC had received information and evidence of allegations of crimes committed by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) and that those “would be and are being investigated.” In his report to the UN Security Council, the ICC prosecutor did not make any announcements regarding specific cases the court was investigating in Libya.
Senior government officials in the GNA and previous Tripoli-based administrations, and LAAF Commanders, including senior LAAF leadership, may be criminally liable for war crimes of their subordinates in Tarhouna, if they knew or should have known of the crimes and failed to take measures to prevent them or hand over those responsible for prosecution.
The UN’s Independent Fact Finding Mission on Libya, in a July 2022 report, found that “the crimes against humanity of extermination, imprisonment, torture, persecution and enforced disappearance were committed by members of the al-Kaniyat militia against a defined population in Tarhouna.” The mission said that Libya should establish a special tribunal to prosecute international crimes with international technical support and expertise, and that judicial officials in other countries should investigate those implicated in crimes in Tarhouna, including through exercising universal jurisdiction. Libya has not taken any steps to establish a special court.
The United States, in November 2020, sanctioned Mohamed al-Kani and al-Kaniyat militia under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for the “killing of civilians, torture, forced disappearances, and displacement of civilians.” Mohamed and Abdulrahim al-Kani are both subject to sanctions by the European Union, since March 2021, for “extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances between 2015 and June 2020 in Tarhouna.” The United Kingdom, in May 2021, also sanctioned al-Kaniyat militia and their leaders Mohamed and Abdulrahim al-Kani for “enforced disappearances, torture, and the killing of civilians in Libya.”
“Justice for victims in Tarhouna remains elusive as Libyan authorities struggle to gain custody over those responsible for these crimes,” Salah said.
The people Human Rights Watch interviewed consented to the information being published. Human Rights Watch decided to use pseudonyms instead of the names of interviewees to protect them from retaliation for speaking out.
Two of the four prisons used by al-Kaniyat during the 2019-2020 Tripoli conflict were make-shift facilities. One was a former water bottling facility known as the “Water Factory,” where detainees were held in small box-like cells they described as measuring 1.2 meters high and 1.2 meters wide. The second was a facility belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture that became known as the “Boxes Prison.” Detainees there were also held in square box-like cells they described as measuring one meter high by 80 centimeters wide.
The other two facilities were state facilities formerly under the GNA that al-Kaniyat took over and controlled fully during the 2019-2020 conflict – the Central Support Prison, under the Interior Ministry, and the Judicial Police Correctional Prison under the Justice Ministry.
Al-Kaniyat unlawfully executed people in all four of these detention facilities, the former detainees said. They described inhumane conditions and treatment that would amount to torture at all four locations, especially the use of plastic hoses to whip detainees on the soles of their feet (falaka), sometimes while they were suspended or tied up.
The people interviewed named figures in relation to these crimes: including Mohamed Al-Kani, killed in July 2021 by unidentified gunmen in Benghazi, and his brother Mohsen, killed during clashes in south Tripoli in September 2019. They named a number of associates who they said helped these men manage the prisons and participated in the arrests, torture, and ill-treatment, including senior prison officials.
The Libyan attorney general, al-Siddiq al-Sur, announced in August 2022 that the judicial investigations committee that he tasked with investigating crimes by the al-Kaniyat had opened 280 criminal cases, 10 of which had been referred to court. Al-Sur said that of 76 people sought by the judiciary for crimes in Tarhouna, 20 were being held in provisional detention for killings, torture, abduction, enforced disappearance, armed robbery, robbery, and other offenses. Some of those being sought were in Tunisia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, he said.
The attorney general’s office has not said when these cases would be tried.
Judicial proceedings in Libya are marked by grave due-process violations. Detainees are held in prolonged pre-charge and pre-trial detention, often without access to lawyers or family visits. During interrogations, they are subjected to coerced confessions, and while in detention they face inhumane conditions and systematic ill-treatment.
Mohamed Khalifa al-Kani was widely regarded as the leader of the al-Kaniyat militia. He was joined by four of his brothers.
The al-Kani militia was responsible for killings and disappearances in Tarhouna from as early as 2012 or 2013, said the former detainees interviewed and members of the Tarhouna Municipal Council. Under the leadership of Mohamed, the group grew into a major militia that, from 2015 on, maintained de facto control over Tarhouna.
In 2016, they allied with the former GNA until the start of the 2019 conflict when, adopting the name “9th Brigade,” they switched sides and allied with Hiftar’s LAAF, whom they had fought against during the 2014 Tripoli conflict.
After the fighting ended on June 5, 2020, surviving al-Kaniyat members and affiliated fighters fled, most to the eastern part of the country, and al-Kaniyat disbanded as an armed group. Two al-Kani brothers, Abderrahim and Muammar, are currently fugitives.
According to the Public Authority for the Search and Identification of the Missing, 400 people, including women and children, have been reported missing in Tarhouna since 2012. They include 260 residents of Tarhouna. Since June 2020, authorities found 82 graves in five locations in Tarhouna that included a garbage dump and agricultural lands, according to the attorney general’s office. While most of the bodies found in the mass graves are believed to be from 2019-2020, one of the unmarked graves contained 16 bodies of people who were disappeared in 2017, according to the Public Authority for the Missing.
Senior prison officials allegedly responsible for detention facilities during the 2019-2020 conflict included Salem al-Saket, the commander of Central Support Prison, and Mohamed Salhein and Fathi al- Zinkak, commanders of the Judicial Police Correctional Prison
Sameer, 32, an engineer, said that the Kaniyat had targeted his family since 2014, and that he decided to leave Tarhouna for Tripoli in 2016 “after the killings started.” He said that in April 2021, two people he recognized who are linked with al-Kaniyat seized him from the market in Tarhouna where he had been shopping and took him to what became known as the “Boxes Prison,” a site belonging to the Agricultural Ministry. They placed him in one of the eight make-shift box-like concrete cells that were arranged in an “L” shape along the walls of a room, measuring around one meter high and 80 centimeters wide with black metallic doors. The corner cell appeared to be larger. He identified two men he said were in charge of the prison.
The militia took his two phones, more than 1,000 Libyan dinars (US$200), his ID card, and driver’s license. Sameer said he was held at the “Boxes Prison” for a month and-a-half. He was never given a reason for his detention. The guards told him only, “Your issue is with the Hajj,” which means, he said, “with al-Kani’s.” He said he never saw any of al-Kani brothers during his detention but recognized their voices when they visited. While he was held, he had no contact with his family or anyone other than the guards.
“I lost 17 kilos in prison,” he said. “I saw very little. The guards never opened the boxes at the same time, and they never called me by my real name. When I was admitted, I saw some used clothes on top of the boxes. I did not see anyone but there were people in the boxes. They used to put up to five people into the big box [larger corner cell]. In the small boxes, they used to put up to two people.”
He said during his entire stay, he was given a change of clothes and allowed to wash his body only once. “I was allowed to go to the toilet once a day. Sometimes I was too slow for them, so someone would beat me. I had a small bottle and I used it to pee. I had to be careful with it because I could only empty it when allowed to leave the cell.”
He said that every day he heard gunshots, including Kalashnikov asssualt riflesat the prison and presumed that people were being killed. “Every day, with every opening of the main gate, I used to think that they are going to kill me. The cell doors would open daily and only seconds after, I would hear gunshots.”
He said that he believed members of the LAAF were also brought for interrogation: “I used to hear them interrogate people they brought from the front lines and sometimes it seems from their homes. Some of those they brought in were people from the LAAF. I heard the interrogators calling them traitors after questioning them and then I would hear gunshots immediately after. After they killed someone, there was immediately total silence. You could hear a pin drop for one to one and-a-half hours.”
On the day the conflict over Tripoli ended, June 5, 2020, a man opened the cell doors at around 2 a.m., but kept the main door locked. He instructed detainees not to leave the facility. He said he saw six other men in cells including, to his surprise, one of his cousins. Once he heard the guards’ car drive off, he ran away with his cousin through the farms surrounding the facility: “I had sat cross-legged for 46 days so my muscles were weak. My feet were full of thorns because I had left barefoot. A man we came across gave me slippers. Once I made it to my house, I did not find my parents, so I asked someone to call them. My mother cried for two hours since she thought that I was dead. I still have pain in my shoulders and legs from my time at the Boxes, but things are better now.”
After his release, he lodged a formal complaint at the Tarhouna police station about the abuse he suffered, but did not receive any support from authorities, he said.
Khaled, 50, a Tarhouna resident, said he was detained in November 2019 with two of his brothers. He was held with them for over seven months at Central Support Prison in Tarhouna and left it only on June 5, 2020, the day the conflict ended. Their families did not know where they were held. Those who seized him were three men he could identify.
He said that one of the al-Kani brothers came to see him in his cell one week after his arrest and threatened to kill him, saying, “You are a traitor, we are sending you to God.” He said al-Kani also told one of his brothers, “I will bury you alive.” He believes he and his brothers were spared only because al-Kani was injured. He said that Mohamed and Mohsen, and other al-Kani’s also visited the detention facility while he was held there.
He said up to nine people shared his 2-by-2 meter cell, and up to 16 people occupied other cells. He said it was not possible for everyone in a cell to lie down for lack of space. Boys as young as 13 were held with adults, he said. Detainees were fed mostly rice or pasta, in insufficient quantities. “Even animals wouldn’t be treated this way.”
On his first day in prison, he was taken out of his cell at around 11 a.m. together with one of his brothers. They were interrogated and accused of being “traitors” because they opposed al-Kaniyat and the LAAF, and of knowing where anti-Kaniyat sleeper cells in Tarhouna were. They were also accused of having weapons and cooperating with Faraj el-Kishr, head of the Tarhouna counterterrorism unit at the time.
He said he told them that between 2016 and until the start of the 2019 conflict, he had not been affiliated with any armed group:
They did not believe me. They tied me up and suspended me with my hands tied behind my back. One of the guards stood on my right and another on the left, and both used a PPR [plastic hose] to hit me on the soles of my feet and elsewhere on my body. I was tortured twice on the first day, between 11 in the morning and 1 at night. They beat you until you faint then they stop and make you jog. When I used to fall they used to beat me and then resume the interrogation. For 10 days, I couldn’t stand or walk. I had to crawl, even to the toilet.
He said that one of his detained brothers was also subjected to falaka once during this detention.
Every day, guards tortured some of the detainees for some hours, which was anytime between 11 a.m. and 3 a.m, he said. He said he could identify the guards responsible for torturing and interrogating detainees and that sometimes, al-Kaniyat would force some detainees to tie up others and hold them down while they were beaten.
He said that some detainees who were executed at Central Support while he was held there were later found in the Tarhouna mass graves. One of them was named Ezzeddine.
He recalled hearing his beating and interrogation:
They brought him at night. They beat him on the soles of his feet. He was yelling. They were asking him, “Where is the ammunition? Where are the dollars? Where are the weapons?” He would respond, “In the name of Allah I don’t have any.’ He was held in an isolation cell with a man from Morocco named Mohamed who used to work with the Red Crescent, whom they also tortured with falaka. On the fourth or fifth day after Ezzedine arrived at the prison they took him out, blindfolded. He went out of the prison door and then we heard gunshots.
He seemed to know that he was going to die because he asked for a phone so he could settle his business. It was after the liberation of Tarhouna that we confirmed that Ezzedine had been killed and that his body found in one of the mass graves at a facility belonging to the agricultural ministry known as “5 Kilometers,” according to his cousin.”
He said that he was held at the prison until the day the conflict ended. A guard opened the cell doors at around 2 a.m. for remaining detainees to leave, he said.
A resident of Tarhouna, Hashem was arrested on December 21, 2019, by al-Kaniyat when fighting between the pro-GNA alliance Burkan Al-Ghadab [Volcano of Rage] and the LAAF armed group in his area displaced residents, including members of his extended family. He said he was held for 10 days at the “Water Factory,” where detainees were held in five tiny box-like cells. He said up to two people had to squat in one “box” for days and were taken out to common areas for beatings and other torture. He said guards beat detainees daily.
“There were four or five boxes [cells] that measured around 1.2 by 1.2 meters,” he said. “Up to four persons were held in these cells. We had to squat. On the first day they took us out of the boxes, blindfolded us, poured cold water on us, shocked us with an electrical cable. It’s an open-ended cable that is attached to a socket. They did this to me on both of my legs until I fainted.” He showed researchers marks on his legs that he said were from the shocks.
He said he was whipped on both feet (falaka) and was held in forced positions for extended periods by prison guards.
The armed group running the prison beat all the detainees, he said, administering mostly falaka in the open space in front of the cells: “They put my feet in a square box and tied them. I was handcuffed while they beat me with a PPR [plastic hose]. Two people beat me intermittently from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. I sat on the floor in the “Water Factory” for 12 hours while handcuffed. They accused me of supporting the 17th of February revolution [the anti-Gaddafi revolt in 2011].”
He said while he was at the prison, he heard from his cell how one man named al-Ameri, who was held in a cell next to his, was killed on December 23 or 24, 2019, after armed group members suspended and beat him with a club all over his body. The beatings took place in an open area in front of the cells. The man made it through one night but then died the next day. He was dead in one of the boxes for a day before he was taken out. Hashem said he could identify at least four people who were involved in his killing.
After 110 days, his captors transferred him to the Judicial Police Correctional Prison, he said, where he could identify two men in control. While he said he was not beaten during the 33 days that he spent there, he was not allowed any family visits. He said that an acquaintance of his, Ahmed, was hanged in the prison during the conflict by one of the guards.
He said he was released on February 4, 2020, through family connections. He said he filed a complaint at al-Dawun police station and with the military prosecutor’s office in Msallatah after his release.
A Tarhouna resident and building contractor, Ehab and his two brothers were seized from his home by al-Kaniyat during Ramadan [April] in 2020. He said 35 to 40 people came with six cars and heavy weapons at 7 a.m., arrested them and took them to Central Support Prison, where the three of them were put in a cell together. Three others were in the cell and had already spent between four and six months at the prison. He said al-Kaniyat then went back to his family home and stole six cars and furniture, and then burned down the house.
He said: “When they broke the door of my house to arrest me, my wife was there with my kids. Until today she’s afraid. The danger for me is that the killers responsible for the crimes in Tarhouna are still on the loose, in Benghazi, and in eastern Libya.”
He said he was in prison until June 5, 2020, the day the conflict ended. The cell he was in had no toilet or mattress. He said that those in charge at Central Support “beat me with their fists, kicked, insulted, and threatened to kill me more than once.”
He said that he and his brothers were marked for execution by al-Kaniyat. He asked the man who was in charge of the prison, about his missing brother, and he told him, “You and your brothers got the ‘death sentence’ more than 30 times. Those who brought you, brought you to die.” He believes that this man fled to eastern Libya after the end of the war.
Ehab said that al-Kaniyat had kidnapped and “disappeared” five of his family members between 2012 and 2017, including two of his brothers and three relatives. He said that he could identify one of four men who had been responsible for the kidnapping in 2017 of one of his brothers, who remains missing. When he confronted al-Kaniyat member about the kidnapping in 2017, he was told, “We are aware of this issue, don’t look for him again.”
Another brother was found dead after he was shot and subsequently kidnapped in 2015 by two men he could identify, among others, he said. He and other family members gave authorities DNA samples in the hope of identifying his brothers who had been kidnapped and who are believed to be among the bodies that authorities had found in the Tarhouna mass graves. Human Rights Watch documented the names and details of the relatives.
Haitham, a Tarhouna resident, said that on December 21, 2019, members of al-Kaniyat, led by people he could identify, ambushed a family gathering in Tarhouna, killed one of his cousins on the spot and seized 10 other male relatives. While he and others managed to flee to nearby farmland, his 10 relatives were taken to Central Support Prison, where they were subsequently killed:
I was with them. They were alive when they were seized and taken to Central Support Prison. Six months after the end of the war, in January 2021, their bodies were found in a mass grave in Tarhouna. I saw their bodies. The 10 were wearing the same clothes as they had been wearing on the day they were seized. All had a bullet wound to the back of their head. Two of them also had multiple bullet wounds in their chests. They were all handcuffed behind their backs and four had their legs tied together.
The family had to flee Tarhouna altogether after the incident and did not hear any news of their detained relatives until January 2021, six months after the end of the war and over a year after they had been disappeared. The bodies of the 10 men were found in a mass grave in Tarhouna known as “al-Rabt,” he said. Former detainees at Central Support later told him that the men were executed within hours after they arrived at the prison.