The Kani brothers took advantage of Libya's power vacuum and terrorised the town of Tarhuna with mindless butchery.

In the Libyan town of Tarhuna, a family found opportunity in chaos as the 2011 revolution toppled the country's longtime leader Moammer Gaddafi. It started off with seven siblings, known as the Kani brothers. They ruthlessly began assassinating individuals and wiping out families to enhance their power in the town. In public, they proudly intimidated people with heavy weapons they had amassed over the years, as well as pet lions that were rumoured to have been fed with the flesh of their victims.

Nine years after the revolution, Tarhuna citizens finally began to come out of the terrifying shadow of these brothers when the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured the town with the military support of Turkey in early June last year, a report says. 

Since then, GNA officials have discovered 27 mass graves with several dozen victims inside. They are yet to be identified. The unidentified bodies comprise men, women and children. Many of them bear the obvious signs of torture. 

At first, it was a mix of revenge and thirst for power that triggered the Kani brothers to launch this undisguised butchery in the town. The youngest sibling, Ali al Kani, was the only brother who supported the 2011 revolution, but he was assassinated by a clan named Na’ajaa. 

To take revenge for Ali, and to exploit the gaping security vacuum for power, the remaining six brothers went on a rampage, killing not only those who were behind Ali's death, but dozens of others who weren't even remotely associated with the crime. Whole families were murdered.

Over the years, the Kani brothers formed a militia group which they named after their family name, Kaniyat. By 2015, they were in total control of Tarhuna and they later saw an opportunity in supporting Libya’s warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) provided Mohamed al Kani, the top Kani brother, the cash, weapons and the recognition he craved. Serving as a major supply line, Tarhuna then became one of the most strategic towns serving Haftar’s ambition to capture the capital of Tripoli. 

During their strongest period, the motivation behind the Kani crimes has been more than about punishing those who disagree with them. They aimed to destroy anything they saw as a danger to their rule. 

“When they capture and kill someone, they also make sure to kill the rest of [the men in] his family so that they don’t retaliate. After they kill people, they seize their money and property,” one resident of Tarhuna, three of whose relatives were abducted by the militia, told HRW in a report

The report said their influence in the town was so strong that a military police facility known as Da’am, and a Judicial police facility, Qadhai’ya, were among the locations where they would interrogate people. 

The Kani brothers, now only four left, fled to eastern Libya when they lost the battle against the GNA forces. The pet lions they once used to frighten the town’s residents were found shot dead at the abandoned home of one of the brothers, Middle East Eye reported in September last year. 

Members of the Government of National Accord's (GNA's) missing persons bureau, exhume bodies in what Libya's internationally recognized government officials say is a mass grave, in Tarhuna city, Libya October 27, 2020.
Members of the Government of National Accord's (GNA's) missing persons bureau, exhume bodies in what Libya's internationally recognized government officials say is a mass grave, in Tarhuna city, Libya October 27, 2020. (Reuters)

Calls to hold Kaniyat responsible and identify the victims

As the investigations continue, in a report published on January 7, Human Rights Watch called for bringing those responsible to justice.

Some residents are reportedly still living in fear - they continue to face threats by the Kaniyat. At least 338 residents of Tarhuna were reported missing during the Kani brothers’ reign, the GNA-linked Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons told HRW. 

The process towards justice is slow and uncertain. 

After the recapture of Tarhuna, Russia, an ally to Haftar along with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, stopped a proposal at the UN Security Council to blacklist the militia for their crimes. 

The United States then unilaterally blacklisted the armed militia group Kaniyat along with Mohammed al-Kani, the oldest Kani brother who acted as the millitia’s leader along with the second oldest brother, a week after Russia’s veto of the vote.

ICC officials reportedly travelled to Libya and visited sites with unmarked graves and took testimony from victims’ family members.

“Families in Tarhuna whose loved ones went missing face a difficult time moving forward with their lives,” explained Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at HRW.

“The authorities should act on the grim discovery of mass graves by taking proper steps to identify the bodies and bringing those responsible for abuses to justice.”