A New Zealand-born documentary filmmaker detained for days in Libya has left the country after an investigation which highlights the confused, capricious nature of Libya’s emerging post-Gaddafi justice system.
British Embassy staff confirmed that Sharron Ward, a dual national of New Zealand and Britain, “voluntarily left” the Libyan capital Tripoli on Tuesday aboard a British Airways flights bound for London.
“The British embassy would like to thank the Libyan authorities for their assistance in resolving Sharron’s case,” said the British Embassy Spokesperson, Nicola Woodget.
The 42-year-old had twice been detained over the past week, initially while conducting interviews at a disused naval academy – home to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from the town of Tawergha.
She was transferred to a Supreme Security Committee (SSC) base in Ain Zara and released late Thursday night.
Staff from the British Embassy accompanied Ward back to the SSC base for a follow-up interview on Saturday.
She was detained for a further 48 hours, consistent with Libyan law which allows a two-day detention during investigation.
However, it is unclear what Ward was being investigated for, or if proper judicial process was followed.
She was rumoured to be under investigation for espionage.
Ward on Monday said that SSC officials had offered her a deal: If she handed over footage shot during her time in Libya to the authorities, she would be free to go. If not, she would be charged and face a prolonged period of detention.
In a bizarre twist, Ward had hidden her tapes in a rubbish bin at her hotel, which was subsequently emptied by a lone cleaner and mixed in with piles of garbage from the hotel and sent on to a rubbish dump.
On Monday evening Ward expressed concern that the loss of her tapes would lead to her continued detention. However, diplomats successfully negotiated her release.
Ward expressed frustration that last year’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s repressive rule had led to the present environment of impunity in Libya.
“But when the boots on the other foot, things are a bit different, aren’t they,” she said.
The exact status of the investigation is unclear, but signs had pointed to that its scope could widen. Earlier footage shot by Ward in a different Libyan IDP camp was seemingly transmitted to Human Rights Watch – which has meticulously documented rebel abuses and issued a series of scathing reports since the fall of Gaddafi.
Ward said that Libyan authorities were looking to interview one of the organisation’s Libya researchers.
The country’s interim authority began passing laws arguably stifling free speech and targeting the press earlier this year.
The National Transitional Council passed Law 37 (2012), that criminalised the glorification of the former regime, including Gaddafi, and anyone who insults “the prestige of the state”, its institutions or the Libyan people, as well as those who publish news which “harms the February 17 Revolution”.
The law was later ruled unconstitutional.
Additional laws, which drew the ire of rights groups, granted thuwwar (revolutionaries) immunity from prosecution for abuses perpetrated during last year’s insurgency. However, many thuwwar abuses appear to have not been investigated.
In one case during last year’s insurgency, a woman’s body was discovered in an eastern Libyan field because of the smoke that poured into the sky.
Her head had been cut off. Her spine was separated from her pelvic bone, splitting her upper and lower torso. Her right leg was separated from her hip, femur crushed. From Libya’s south, she had black skin.
The forensic report stated “pieces missing”.
The assailants had raped the woman and cut her to pieces before setting her remains on fire. The investigation has yet to proceed anywhere.
“At that time [the city] was fully under the control of the rebels, no Gaddafi elements were there,” said the sister, M., of the deceased. “The investigation is not serious. The police know who did it. They say that an investigation is executed but those are empty words.
“It is dark act; it is a big cover up.”
Since the fall of Gaddafi- executed in Sirte, likely a war crime – Libya has been plagued by a spate of retributive violence.
Arbitrary arrest, torture, indefinite detention and summary executions have emerged while the judicial system remains in a state of paralysis. The result is an environment of impunity, rights groups charge in which the authorities appear unable – or unwilling – to hold former rebels to account.
In one case documented by Amnesty International in a comprehensive July report – Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias – Hasna Shaeeb was abducted by men in military uniform from her Tripoli home.
During the ensuing torture session – in which questions focused on her relationship with former government figures and she was accused of being a Gaddafi loyalist – Shaeeb had electric shocks administered to her private parts, head and right leg.
Urine was poured over her.
She was beaten and whipped while her assailants threatened to kidnap and rape her mother.
“The new Libyan authorities must end revenge attacks and reprisals against alleged al-Gaddafi loyalists and supporters carried out in the name of protecting the ’17 February Revolution’,” the report said.
“It is time to turn pledges to respect human rights into reality by taking concrete measures to investigate and prosecute all war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, whether committed by al-Gaddafi forces or affiliates, or by anti-Gaddafi fighters and militias,” the report concluded.
Ward was filming in a Janzour IDP camp when initially detained. The camp, a disused naval compound, is home to Tawerghans – descendents of black Arfican slaves – whose town, home to 30,000 people, was razed by rebels, hurling Molotov cocktails, accusing the town’s inhabitants of fealty to Gaddafi in a crazed and bloody haze of retributive violence.
Gaddafi used Tawergha as a base to launch a sustained assault on neighbouring Misrata during last year’s insurgency.
Abductions of Tawerghans from checkpoints and hospitals are common as are arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings.
The issue of mass displacement remains a sensitive topic in Libya and Tawerghans face fierce discrimination.
It is believed that security personnel additionally detained one of Ward’s contacts from the Janzour camp.