Libya fails to rein in rights abuses
The abduction appears further evidence that 10 months after taking over, Libya’s new interim government has failed to curb human rights abuses, and is seemingly incapable of controlling either the militias or its own security force. It comes as the country faces its first national elections later this month – a key test of whether Libya is heading towards democracy or violent secessionism.
Salem Forjani, a heart surgeon working for the health ministry, was seized on May 17 when he went to Tripoli medical centre – the city’s largest hospital – on orders of the health minister to remove the director, who was accused of links with the Muammar Gaddafi regime.
Instead, he was confronted by members of the government’s supreme security committee (SSC) waiting in the director’s office, who dragged Forjani through the hospital, beating him so badly he lost consciousness in front of horrified staff.
A fellow medic photographed Forjani being carried, his shirt off, spread-eagled, down the hospital’s ambulance ramp while an SSC soldier threatened to shoot unarmed hospital security staff giving chase.
The SSC troops bundled the doctor into a car and incarcerated him in a base at Naklia, a suburb of Tripoli, where he was beaten and kicked so hard in the groin that he was left with a ruptured testicle.
Forjani escaped with his life. But for five days neither his family nor health minister Fatima Hamroush could find him, or even get confirmation he was still alive.
Finally, after he had been moved to a second facility, at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, the SSC contacted the health ministry and released him, having failed to charge him with any offence or even explain the reason for his capture.
Fear of reprisal
Now the surgeon is in hiding in Tripoli, having been warned of reprisals if he speaks out.
“I don’t know how this could happen, this is a new Libya,” he told the Guardian. “I kept asking them, who are you, why are you doing this?”
What has shocked many Libyans, with the photograph now going viral among Facebook users, is that Forjani is a leading light among human rights groups. He sits as an expert on the government’s missing persons commission and chaired an investigation into a massacre of prisoners by the Gaddafi administration, a report distributed to the UN and the International Criminal Court.
His kidnap and torture, and the silence with which it has been met by the government, has left many Libyans fearing for the future. “This is kidnapping,” said his brother, Salah, an official with a Libyan human rights group. “It [the SSC] is more powerful than the police and that is the intention.”
It was not supposed to be this way. The SSC was set up, under the auspices of the interior ministry, as a means for the state to gain control of security from Libya’s patchwork of militias.
Most of the country remains under the control of more than 500 rebel militias who emerged victorious from last year’s Arab Spring uprising, creating a complicated series of interlocking fiefdoms. Human rights groups have accused a minority of these groups of abuses against prisoners.
Many Libyans fear the SSC, which recruits from both former rebels and disbanded Gaddafi-era internal security units, has become a law unto itself.
Last month, the UN special representative, Ian Martin, raised concerns at the UN Security Council in New York. “The interim mechanism called the supreme security committee, with some 60 000 to 70 000 fighters registered, had, to some extent, provided a unified command,” his report states. “It was essential ... that the committee not become a parallel security.”
Yet this is precisely what critics claim the SSC has become. When her official was kidnapped, health minister Hamroush wrote to interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib and President Mustafa Abdul Jalil, begging for help. “We have had no answer,” said health ministry official Hussam Bubash.
Keib visited Britain last month and held talks with David Cameron. He insisted that his National Transitional Council (NTC) was committed to upholding human rights. Keib also defended controversial new laws making it a crime to glorify the former regime, or to “insult the aims of the February 17 revolution”.
He described the decree as “transitional” and insisted that freedom of speech will be protected by Libya’s new, as yet unwritten, Constitution.
The behaviour of the SSC is embarrassing for Britain and France, which took the lead in last year’s Nato bombing campaign that delivered victory to Libya’s rebels over the forces of the late Gaddafi.
Britain has dispatched a senior police officer to advise Libya’s new interior ministry, although she does not have any direct involvement with the SCC.
The foreign office says the UK has consistently raised with Tripoli the importance of respecting human rights and investigating allegations of abuses, including those by rebel forces. It was important the Libyan government reintegrated militias into society, and restored security to the streets, the FO said.
On the eve of crucial elections, the country remains fractious. Tribal fighting in southern Libya left 150 dead in March; last month, a militia unit demanding back pay stormed the prime minister’s office, while skirmishes around Tripoli have frequently closed the border with Tunisia.
Attempts by the interior ministry to deploy SSC units around the country have led to disquiet among the militias of Misrata and Zintan, the most powerful armed forces in the country, their city councils arguing that police forces should be under regional control.
Dr Khalid Urayath – the director of Tripoli medical centre, whom Forjani was sent to relieve – remains unrepentant. He is refusing to step down, saying he is supported by hospital staff and this makes irrelevant the wishes of the health minister. Forjani’s kidnap came during the fourth attempt this year by health ministry officials to order Urayath to step down.
When he refused, Forjana, acting on instructions from the health minister, called the general prosecutor’s office to ask for help from law enforcement officers.
“He was calling on armed forces,” said Urayath. “You know why they [the SCC] used force on him? Dr Salem [Forjana] was trying to escape down the stairs – he was trying to escape. They took him in care and took him to the site of the SSC, they put him there, they interrogated him.”
Urayath is himself a highly qualified heart surgeon and a fellow of the UK’s Royal College of Surgeons. Last month he secured an offer of computer equipment from the British Libyan business council, a powerful business lobbying group chaired by Lord Trefgame, the members of which group include BP, Barclays and GlaxoSmithKline.
He denies allegations from the health ministry that he misspent money on 150 overseas trips for staff, and says his links to the Gaddafi administration were through his decision to mentor the late dictator’s adopted daughter, Hanna, a medical student. “The best cardiovascular surgeon in the country is me, very humble to say it,” he said. “You cannot say no to the Colonel [Gaddafi].”
Diplomats are quietly lobbying Libya’s government to issue a guarantee of safety for Forjani. But following Urayath’s refusal to step down, the health ministry’s plans to reform a health service left in chaos by the Gaddafi dictatorship are in tatters.
A health ministry official said that two weeks after the health minister urged the government to arrest the kidnappers, no action has been taken and the prime minister has failed to launch an investigation.
“What can we do? We cannot remove him, we have no armed force,” said Bubash. “I am one of the people who was threatened. The supreme security council said: ‘You can see what will happen to you.’”
The interior ministry, contacted by the Guardian, did not return calls and a spokesperson for the ruling National Transitional Council cancelled an interview. – © Guardian News and Media 2012