The UN is working with the Libyan authorities to transfer control of prisons from armed groups to trained professionals.
UNITED NATIONS – UN official Stephanie Williams has told TRT World of a ‘travesty’ of thousands of men, women, and children being locked up in Libya’s jails, facing torture and abuse, without getting their day in court.
Williams, the UN’s deputy special representative for political affairs in Libya, counted some 6,400 inmates in Libya’s 26 official prisons, more than three quarters of whom were languishing behind bars waiting for their trial dates.
“Those held had little opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention or seek redress for violations suffered,” Williams, a former American diplomat who has served across the region, told TRT World.
“Across the country, arbitrary detention and torture continued to be widespread and there are reports of torture and other ill-treatment, poor detention conditions, medical neglect and the denial of visits from families and lawyers.”
The UN backs Libya’s internationally-recognised government in Tripoli, which is rivalled by another government in the west. Libya is otherwise a patchwork of armed groups scrambling for control of the oil-rich north African country.
The Tripoli government runs 26 official prisons, but thousands of other inmates are held in facilities largely beyond the reach of its officials, while many more are in jails directly run by armed groups, the UN says.
“We are working closely with the Libyan authorities to transfer control of prisons from armed groups to trained professionals under the control of the Ministry of Justice,” Williams said.
“We are also pressing the government to address the travesty of civilians being held in prison without charge or due process.”
In September, the government appointed prosecutors to review the cases of some 3,600 detainees at the prison on Mitiga airbase, one of Tripoli’s biggest detention hubs, which is run by the Special Deterrence Force, a militia.
In that review, about 800 detainees were screened, of whom some 300 were released and others were transferred, according to a report from prosecutors to the UN. Many more reviews were “under consideration”, added Williams.
In November, UN observers visited al Jdeidah prison, where some of the Mitiga inmates had been transferred. They described “acceptable conditions” but noted the lack of a medical clinic and the presence of under-age detainees.
France’s UN ambassador, Francois Delattre told TRT World that Libya’s prisons were a “source of concern” for diplomats in New York and called for “commitment and collective pressure” to tackle the detention crisis.
But he described a complicated agenda for the turbulent country, with the need to fight terrorism and overhaul the economy as the UN pushes for a national conference between warring factions and elections this spring.
Last April, the UN reported that successive governments in Tripoli had let armed groups kill and torture detainees in prison, while paying the fighters’ salaries and providing them with equipment and uniforms.
It documented armed groups arresting opponents, activists, journalists and politicians and jailing them without trial or the chance to see lawyers. Some were beaten with metal bars, flogged or endured electric shocks.
Speaking with TRT World, Williams said the UN would continue to “provide support for Libyan security forces with a view to mitigating the identified risks of grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law”.
This week, the New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch released details of another Libyan detention scandal, in which European Union policies led to “abuse against migrants” who travelled through Libya to reach Europe.
With EU and Italian support, the Libyan Coast Guard was sending intercepted migrants to four official detention centers in western Libya, where they faced violent abuse by guards, crowded cells and unsanitary conditions, the report said.
“Migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including children, are trapped in a nightmare, and what EU governments are doing perpetuates detention instead of getting people out of these abusive conditions,” said the group’s Europe expert Judith Sunderland.
“Fig-leaf efforts to improve conditions and get some people out of detention do not absolve the EU of responsibility for enabling the barbaric detention system in the first place.”
Libya descended into chaos following the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 rebellion backed by NATO air strikes. A bitter rivalry emerged between two governments that has left some 1.1 million people needing aid.