<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

IX. Torture

“I confessed during torture with electricity.  They put small wires on my toes and on my thumbs.  Sometimes they put one on my thumb and another on my tongue, neck or ear.  It had a hand crank to make it go. They had two kinds of machines, one with a crank and one with buttons.”
—Testimony of Valentina Siropulo, one of six foreign medical workers accused of infecting 426 children with HIV, May 2005.

Under Libyan law, torture is a crime.  The government has repeatedly claimed that it investigates and prosecutes cases in which torture is alleged.  “We will not allow any police officer to subject any person to torture,” Secretary of Public Security Nasr al-Mabrouk told Human Rights Watch.  “When we learn of a violation by a policeman we inform justice.”91

The head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency also said that his agents do not use force in interrogations.  He said:

I do not expect to get information from torture.  First, they all have training in how to deal with interrogations.  Second, I do not trust information I get through violence.  As a person who wants an honest report about the work of an organization, I would not feel comfortable getting information from force.92

Article 2 of the Great Green Charter of Human Rights proscribes any punishment that would “violate the dignity and the integrity of a human being.”  It prohibits “any and all injuries, whether physical or moral, against the person of a prisoner.”

Article 17 of Law 20, On Enhancing Freedom, states: “It is prohibited to inflict any form of corporal or psychological punishment on the accused, or to treat him with severity or degradation, or in any manner which is damaging to his dignity as a human being.”

Article 435 of the penal code states that, “[A]ny public official who orders the torture of the accused or tortures them himself shall be punished by a prison term of three to ten years.”  Article 341 of the code stipulates a prison sentence of ten years for those who carry out the order.  Article 337 of the code imposes imprisonment on “any public official who uses violence against any person while on duty in a way that is degrading and causes physical pain.”

The Libyan government says it has taken all possible steps to minimize torture. In an October 20, 2005 statement, in response to Human Rights Watch allegations of torture,93 the government announced:

The Libyan people have enshrined in all their Basic People’s Congresses and reaffirmed in their fundamental documents such as the Declaration of the People’s Authority, the Great Green Charter for Human Rights and the Freedom Consolidation Act [also known as the Law on Enhancing Freedom] that degrading punishments must be abolished and all penalties that curb freedom must be restricted to a minimum.  Prison is only for those whose freedom poses a danger to others. The harshest penalties have been prescribed for all who inflict any torture or mistreatment on detainees. However the competent authorities did not deny that violations by some individuals have been detected and appropriate measures were taken to hold them accountable and put them on trial.94

Despite these statements and legal guarantees, fifteen out of thirty-two individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed in prisons said that Libyan security authorities had tortured them during interrogations in recent years, usually to extract a confession (one case was from 1990).  Six of the alleged torture victims were illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who were arrested for the possession of or dealing drugs or alcohol and another six were the foreign medical workers charged in the Benghazi AIDS case (see below). The rest were Libyan political prisoners.  Only in the case of the foreign medical workers are the authorities known to have conducted a criminal investigation, which resulted in acquittal of the ten alleged torturers.  The Libyan government did not respond to a Human Rights Watch request for information about the other cases.

Libyan man, identity withheld

A Libyan man who did not want to be identified said that security forces arrested him and then tortured him in the presence of his pregnant wife and son in a building of the Internal Security Agency.  He told Human Rights Watch:

I was blindfolded and taken upstairs. I was shocked with electricity and made to sit on broken glass and nails. They were kicking and punching me until I confessed… I said no and they said “take him back.” This went on for one week. After one week, they came at night and tied my hands to my back and my feet with a blindfold. They took me upstairs. They opened the door, and I saw my son and wife. There were five or six members of security with masks. They tied me to the chair and one of them said: “Do you want to sign or should we torture them?”95

According to the person, the interrogators took his son, who was ten months old and put a wire on the child’s hand. “He screamed and his face turned red and he fell over not breathing,” the prisoner said. He signed his confession shortly after that.

Torture of non-Libyans

Human Rights Watch interviewed six non-Libyan nationals in prison for possession of or dealing drugs or alcohol who said they were tortured, usually by the police to extract a confession.  In most of the cases, the torture occurred at the hands of Libya’s drug police, the mukafaha.

One man from sub-Saharan Africa imprisoned for possession of drugs told Human Rights Watch that members of the mukafaha in Tripoli beat him after his arrest in 2004. He said:

They hung me by a chain from the wall. There was a stick behind my knees, and my hands were tied to it. They hung me up on the wall. I stayed like that for forty-five minutes. They were beating me during that time. The told me “if we kill you, no one will know.”’96

Another prisoner from sub-Saharan Africa, interviewed independently, gave a similar account.  Libyan authorities held him in Zawiya police station without food or water for some days after his arrest in August 2003, he said. Mukafaha agents then tied his hands behind his back and used a piece of wood or an iron bar to hang him from the wall. This happened for two or three hours at a time, he said, and sometimes he was beaten too. After six days he signed a confession in Arabic that he said he could not read. “The first time I saw my lawyer was the second to last [court] session,” he said.97

Human Rights Watch visited the main police station in Zawiya, one of six stations in the town west of Tripoli. The commanding officer there said “the citizen has full freedom to complain [about torture].” He was not able to provide Human Rights Watch with information on how many complaints of abuse people had registered in Zawiya or how many police officers, if any, had been disciplined for abusing detainees.98

Another sub-Saharan African arrested for drug possession in May 2004 said the police held him in the Geria police station for three days without food or water. Then, in the Mukafaha, interrogators hung him for four hours with his hands behind his back.  He explained:

They put an iron rod behind my back and they hung me.  It was for about four hours. They beat me with a cable on my legs… They hung me every day. On the fourth day—it was Friday—I had to write my statement.99

According to the man, he did not know what the statement said.  “I was afraid because I have my family and I don’t want to die,” he told Human Rights Watch.  “Because I was afraid, anything they asked me to do, I did it. In the Mukafaha, I signed something under duress. I don’t know what it said.” 

Benghazi AIDS Case

In early 1999, Libyan authorities arrested five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on charges that they purposely infected 426 children in the al-Fateh Children’s Hospital in Benghazi with the HIV virus. A Benghazi court sentenced them to death in May 2004. The court acquitted nine Libyans who worked at the hospital.  In December 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentences and ordered a retrial, saying there were “irregularities” in the arrest and interrogation of the medical workers.

The foreign medical workers say the infections were due to poor hygiene in the hospital.  Luc Montagnier, a co-discoverer of the HIV virus, testified in the trial that the children were probably infected as a result of poor hygiene at the hospital, and that many of the children had been infected with HIV before the foreign health workers arrived in 1998.  Libyan medical experts for the prosecution said the infections most likely resulted from injections.

Human Rights Watch interviewed all of the defendants in May 2005. Four of them gave detailed testimony of being subjected to electric shocks, beatings to the body with cables and wooden sticks, and beatings on the soles of their feet.

“I confessed during torture with electricity.  They put small wires on my toes and on my thumbs,” one of the defendants, Valentina Siropulo, told Human Rights Watch.  “Sometimes they put one on my thumb and another on my tongue, neck or ear.  It had a hand crank to make it go. They had two kinds of machines, one with a crank and one with buttons.”100

Another defendant, Kristiana Valceva, said interrogators used a small machine with cables and a handle that produced electricity. “During the shocks and torture, they asked me where the AIDS came from and what is your role,” she said. Libyan interrogators also hit her with an electric stick on her breast and genital area, she said. “My confession was all in Arabic without translation,” she told Human Rights Watch. “We were ready to sign anything just to stop the torture.”101

The five Bulgarian nurses are incarcerated in a special wing of the women’s facility at Jdeida prison in Tripoli, where they now get regular visits from their lawyers and Bulgarian officials.  The Palestinian doctor, Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a, is in the men’s section of the prison in the wing for those on death row.

“We had barbaric, sadistic torture for a crime we didn’t do,” he told Human Rights Watch during an interview conducted in the presence of a prison guard. “They used electric shocks, drugs, beatings, police dogs, sleep prevention.” He added, “The confession was like multiple choice, and when I gave a wrong answer they shocked me.”  Interrogators also forced the defendants to shock each other, he said.102

Human Rights Watch also interviewed one of the ten Libyans who were tried in June 2005 for using torture against the foreign health workers. Jummia al-Mishri, a lead investigator in the case, insisted that Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a had confessed willingly, and that investigators had found two bottles with the HIV virus in Kristiana Valcheva’s house. “They were treated well and enjoyed all legal rights,” he said.103

Al-Mishri argued that the Bulgarians and Palestinian had complained of torture three years after their arrest, which suggests they are making up the story. Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a told Human Rights Watch that the defendants claimed torture during their first court session in 2000, but the judge dismissed the complaint. The government denied the group access to a lawyer until their first day in court, the defendants said.

On June 7, 2005, a Tripoli court acquitted al-Mishri and the nine others accused of using torture—in total eight policemen, a doctor and a translator.

The Supreme Court reviewed the medical workers’ case on November 15, 2005, but Judge `Ali al-Allout postponed the case until January 31, 2006. More than 100 relatives of the infected children, demanding the death sentence for the defendants, clashed with riot police outside the court, apparently after a police officer pushed a female protester to the ground.  The crowd attacked diplomats observing the trial, forcing them back into the court.104

The court’s postponement may have been intended to allow the Libyan and Bulgarian governments, with assistance from the European Union and United States, to negotiate a settlement.  Libyan officials have said the government will commute the death sentences if Bulgaria pays compensation to the families of the victims—an offer the Bulgarian government has refused.  According to Bulgaria’s foreign minister from 2001 to 2005, the Libyan government offered to free the medical workers if Scotland released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan citizen serving life in prison for the 1988 airline bombing over Lockerbie.105  The Libyan foreign minister denied the claim.106

On December 22, 2005, officials from Bulgaria, the United States, Great Britain and the European Union announced that they had agreed with Libya to establish a fund to assist the country’s AIDS-infected children.107  That same day, the Supreme Court said it had moved its review of the case up to December 25.

On December 25, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the death sentences, and it granted the defendants a new trial in the Benghazi criminal court.  The presiding judge cited “irregularities” in the medical workers’ arrest and interrogation, suggesting that the court had accepted their claims of torture.108  Libya’s Secretary of Justice told the press that the new trial would be held “in one month” with new judges.109  As of January 10, 2006, no trial date had been set.

Human Rights Watch also met with spokesmen from The Association for Child Victims of AIDS in Benghazi, who expressed deep frustration that the world was focusing on the foreign medical workers instead of the children who are dying one by one. They appealed for world attention and ongoing medical aid for the innocent victims.  According to the association, forty-nine children had died as of May 2005.  In addition to the 426 infected children, nineteen mothers are also infected with the virus, the spokesmen said. 

“Tell the world that these children are innocent and suffering,” Ramadan al-Faturi told Human Rights Watch.  He demanded better training for Libyan doctors and psychological support for the families.110

The Benghazi Football Club Case

An allegation of torture come from the prisoner Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, serving a life sentence for organizing a political group that opposed the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution.  According to al-Sharif, the authorities arrested him and thirteen other men on July 21, 2000, on charges of using the Ahli Benghazi Football Club as a cover for their political group. Al-Sharif denied involvement in any political activity and said internal security forces compelled him to confess after three months of torture in Benghazi.  On June 22, 2001, the People’s Court sentenced him, al-Zalawi and a third man, `Abd al-Salam `Abd al-Salam Jum`a al-Jamaty, to death. The court later commuted the sentences to life in prison but, on December 24, 2004, al-Jamaty committed suicide.111

The Supreme Council for Judicial Authority commuted the men’s death sentences at the last moment on February 10, 2002, after the prisoners had spent one hour blindfolded and bound to a wooden stake awaiting execution, al-Sherif said.

Muslim Brotherhood Case

As described elsewhere in this report, security forces arrested 152 individuals on charges of supporting or sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood in June 1988.  They held the detainees in incommunicado detention until their trial before the People’s Court in March 2001. Some of the detainees said they were tortured during that time.112 

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of his arrest, Salem Abu Hanak, who was sentenced to death, said he also underwent torture.  Professor Hanak said security forces arrested him from his home on June 5, 1998, and took him to the headquarters of the Revolutionary Committees Movement at al-Birka in Benghazi.  “They beat me up and hung me up,” he said.  “When I remember this I can’t complete…”113

In February 2002, the court sentenced eleven of the men to ten years in prison and seventy-three of them to life for violating Law 71.  The two leaders of the brotherhood received the death penalty.  Sixty-six of the defendants were acquitted.

According to a lawyer from the public defender, the Popular Lawyers’ Office, who represented some of the accused, the authorities referred some of the defendants for medical exams. The sixty-six men acquitted, she said, were released because the court had confirmed the torture, but Human Rights Watch has not confirmed this is the case.114    The Libyan government did not respond to a Human Rights Watch request for more information about the case.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Secretary of Public Security Nasr al-Mabrouk, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Tohamy Khaled, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[93] Human Rights Watch, “U.K.: Torture a Risk in Libya Deportation Accord,” October 18, 2005.  Available at, as of December 22, 2005.

[94] “Statement by Secretary for Information Affairs at the Foreign Liaison Secretariat,” October 20 2005.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview, name, date and place withheld.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview, name, date and place withheld.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview, name, date and place withheld.                                                                      

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with police officers in Zawiya’s main police station, Zawiya, May 2, 2005.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview, name, date and place withheld.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Valentina Siropulo, Jdeida prison, Tripoli, May 9, 2005.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Kristiana Valceva, Jdeida prison, Tripoli, May 9, 2005.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Ashraf Ahmad Jum`a, Jdeida prison, Tripoli, May 11, 2005.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview with Giumma al-Mishri, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[104] Khaled el-Deeb, “Libyan Court Postpones Verdict on Appeal of Five Bulgarians, One Palestinian in HIV Case,” Associated Press, November 15, 2005.

[105] “Libya’s Reported Death-row Deal,” Agence France-Presse, November 16, 2005.

[106] “Libyan Minister Denies Offering Bulgarian Nurses’ Exchange for Terror Suspect,” BBC Monitoring European, report from Bulgarian Khorizont Radio, November 28, 2005.

[107] The families of the infected children have demanded $10 million in compensation for each infected child.  The amount is equal to what the Libyan government paid the 270 victims of the Pan Am plane that exploded over Lockerbie.

[108] Khaled El-Deeb, “Retrial Ordered in Libya AIDS Case,” Associated Press, December 26, 2005.

[109] “’Don’t Forget Us’ Begs Jailed Bulgarian Nurse in Libya,” Agence France-Presse, January 5, 2006.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramadan al-Faturi, Tripoli, May 11, 2005.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, al-Kuweifia prison, Benghazi, April 23, 2005.

[112] Amnesty International, Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality, April 2004.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Salem Abu Hanak, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.

[114] Ibid.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006