TRIPOLI, Libya — Blood pours from the man’s head, collecting in a pool on the concrete floor. Minutes before he had stood stripped to his underwear and pleading.
At first, former Libyan rebels from the coastal town of Zuwarah slapped him about the face, accusing him of being an informant for Moammar Kadafi. Then the beating increased in intensity as the man, Ahmed Salel, collapsed, hands stretched above his head.
The scene, recorded on a cellphone, ends with Salel, a former Libyan soldier abducted from a market in December, lying motionless but alive.
Retribution is the new law of the land in Libya. Summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and indefinite detention have emerged while the judicial system remains in a state of paralysis.
The result, rights groups charge, is an environment of impunity. In a country whose revolution’s defining moment was arguably the apparent execution in October of Kadafi in captivity — a possible war crime that remains unpunished — dangerous precedents have been set.
Rights activists point out that although suspected supporters of the longtime Libyan leader are subject to arrest, former rebels who committed abuses, increasingly well-known and documented, roam free.
It is imperative that the transitional government “investigates all abuses and prosecutes those responsible — on all sides — in accordance with international law,”Amnesty International‘sHassiba Hadj Sahraoui said in a statement in April. “Only then will Libya begin to turn the page on decades of systematic human rights violations.”
The issue is whether the law will be applied equally for pro- and anti-Kadafi factions. If not, the risk of disillusionment and violent retribution increases in nation already plagued by repeated acts of violence, including a bomb set off Wednesday against the wall of the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi and the brief takeover early this week of Tripoli’s main airport by one angry militia.
The propects for tamping down acts of revenge are not good. A controversial law passed last month grants immunity for “military, security or civilian acts undertaken by revolutionaries with the aim of ensuring the revolution’s success.”
Some analysts fear that Libya will drift into a Lebanon-style conflict of decades past but with tribal rather than sectarian dimensions. Others envision a country rocked by a series of violent convulsions, an exercise in catharsis as each community seeks redress for its suffering.
Heavily armed militias, which the interim authorities are powerless to restrain, continue to stalk perceived enemies. Few believe that the security forces will be able to ensure the safety of defendants, witnesses, lawyers and judges — particularly in emotionally charged or fiercely politicized cases — once the judicial system is up and running. A series of April 27 bomb blasts outside Benghazi’s courthouse has done little to dispel such fears.
The position of Kadafi’s onetime heir-apparent, son Seif Islam, underscores the problem. The International Criminal Court wants him transferred and tried in The Hague. The interim government insists on a trial in Libya but remains unable to extricate him from detention in the former rebel stronghold of Zintan, whose officials want him tried in that city.
Meanwhile, Seif Islam Kadafi and 8,000 other detainees held without judicial review remain in a state of limbo, guilty until proved innocent.
For William Lawrence, North Africa director at the International Crisis Group, the main threat to Libya’s stability are the local-level conflicts as communities seek to defend their interests and see justice served.
“It is part of an‘Arab Spring’search for dignity. … In my estimation, this will continue for the foreseeable future — the complex realities of Libyan communities negotiating,” he said.
“The main reason [rebel] militias are not being pursued is that they can’t be. There are not sufficient security forces in place to even begin this process.”
Lawrence believes the interim government is caught between the reality of having to engage with former Kadafi regime workers, who are highly trained and experienced in the machinations of governance, and its promises to hold to account those with blood on their hands.
“Finding the right balance for transitional justice is really important, as it is in Egypt, Tunisia and the other Arab Spring countries,” he said.
“In practice it is very hard to draw the line, to find the right balance. If done incorrectly, pursuing this type of transitional justice in an overzealous fashion could lead to a witch hunt, which is in no one’s interests.”
Recent regulations issued by the interim government stipulating conditions of eligibility for public office suggest how the problem of dealing fairly with Kadafi loyalists has filtered through all aspects of Libyan social and political life.
One regulation instructs that only those who “joined the February 17 Revolution before March 20, 2011,” can hold public office, essentially institutionalizing discrimination against purported Kadafi supporters.
Yet it is the daily violations, largely unpunished, that have the greatest potential to inflame further unrest.
Sitting in a makeshift school at an unused military base in Tripoli’s Janzour suburb, Omar Imbarak, a towering man with a beard shot through with wisps of gray, said the discrimination must stop.
His town, Tawergha, was used by Kadafi to launch a terrible siege on the neighboring city of Misurata during the uprising. Later, it was burned and looted by Misuratan militias who stormed through hurling Molotov cocktails. The entire population — 30,000 people, most of them descendants of black African slaves — was displaced. Huddled in camps, they continue to suffer at the hands of militia members accusing them of fealty to Kadafi.
Abductions of Tawerghans from camps, checkpoints and hospitals are common.
“Where is the security? How is it possible to say that someone likes Kadafi and then come and kill them? I swear, we did nothing wrong,” Imbarak said. “We can’t even go for one minute from here. If we leave the camp, the militias will say, ‘Who are you?’ and arrest us.”
Complaining about abductions from the town of Regdalin, where support for Kadafi ran strong throughout the insurgency, Ali Mohammed said that the rule of law has not been respected.
The Zuwarah militias “should come to me and I will arrest the people and send them to the government in Tripoli,” said Mohammed, who is in charge of Regdalin’s militias. “Don’t come here with guns and shooting and take people away.”