An unrelenting crisis of impunity in Libya has enabled fighters of the Tariq Ben Zeyad (TBZ) armed group to commit war crimes, and other crimes under international law, with the aim of crushing any challenge to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), the de facto authorities controlling vast swathes of the divided country, Amnesty International said today as it releases a new briefing.
The new research briefing, “We are your masters”: Rampant crimes by the Tariq Ben Zeyad armed group, details how the TBZ, led by Saddam Haftar, son of LAAF General Commander Khalifa Haftar, and his second-in-command Omar Imraj’, has routinely targeted thousands of actual or perceived critics and opponents of the LAAF.
“Since its emergence in 2016, the Tariq Ben Zeyad armed group has terrorized people in areas under LAAF control, inflicting a catalogue of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement — with no fear of consequences,” said Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt and Libya researcher.
“It is high time that a criminal investigation is launched into the command responsibility of Saddam Haftar and Omar Imraj’. They should immediately be removed from positions that would enable them to perpetrate further violations or enable them to interfere in investigations, pending the outcome of investigations. The LAAF must also close all unofficial detention centres operated by the TBZ and release all those arbitrarily detained.”
Between February and September 2022, Amnesty International interviewed 38 current and former residents of LAAF-controlled areas, including former detainees, internally displaced persons, military commanders and fighters, with some interviews conducted during a field trip to Libya and others remotely. The organization reviewed official statements and audiovisual evidence relating to TBZ. On 3 October 2022, Amnesty International shared its findings with the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) and the Office of the Public Prosecutor as well as the General Commander of the LAAF for comment, none of whom had replied by the time of publication.
Abductions, unlawful killings, torture
Amnesty International’s findings include the cases of 25 individuals who were arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared by the TBZ between 2017 and 2022 because of their political views or their tribal, family, or regional affiliations.
Three of the detainees who had been forcibly disappeared were subsequently found dead, their bodies dumped on the street or by morgues in Benghazi, with gunshot wounds or torture marks clearly visible. Four others remain forcibly disappeared.
Three suspected LAAF opponents continue to be arbitrarily detained by the TBZ. The remaining 15 individuals were released, some after spending as long as five years in prison without charge or trial by civilian courts; some after paying extortionate ransoms. All those released said they were subjected to torture and abuse, including beatings, floggings, or being repeatedly suspended in contorted positions.
One former Libyan intelligence officer said the TBZ abducted him after he refused to cooperate with them. They held him for four years in a TBZ base in Benghazi, where he was tortured and threatened with rape. He said TBZ fighters forced him to kneel and say: “Field Marshal (Khalifa Haftar) is my master.”
Two former detainees, interviewed separately, said they witnessed at least five prisoners dying from torture or denial of medical care between 2017 and 2021 in detention centres controlled by the TBZ.
Forced displacement and expulsions
Since late 2021, the TBZ has been involved in the forcible removal of thousands of refugees and migrants from Sabha and surrounding areas. Amnesty International reviewed social media posts and a Facebook page operated by a member of the TBZ, which repeatedly showed members of the TBZ loading refugees and migrants into trucks destined for the border with Niger to “rid” Libya of “irregular migrants”. Those expelled were denied the right to lodge an asylum claim or challenge their deportation and were left in the desert without food or water.
The TBZ was also involved in the forced displacement of thousands of Libyan families during the LAAF’s military campaigns to take control of the cities of Benghazi and Derna in eastern Libya between 2014 and 2019. Amnesty International interviewed members of seven families from eastern Libya suspected of opposing LAAF who said TBZ fighters threatened to kill them if they did not leave eastern Libya. The armed group then confiscated their homes, and they remain scattered across western Libya.
According to evidence gathered by Amnesty International, including eyewitness accounts, audio-visual material and official statements, Saddam Haftar, the de facto group leader and Omar Imraj’, nominally the commander but effectively the second-in-command who exercises control over day-to-day operations, knew or should have known about crimes being committed by their subordinates, but did not do anything to prevent these crimes or punish the perpetrators.
They were, at the very least, fully aware of violations committed in detention centres controlled by the TBZ. Former detainees said Omar Imraj’ regularly toured the TBZ-controlled Sidi Faraj detention centre, located to the east of Benghazi, and spoke with detainees with visible signs of having been tortured. Five former detainees said they were threatened by Saddam Haftar, when they met him in person either before or after their release, with prolonged or renewed detention for challenging the LAAF.
One activist who was subjected to enforced disappearance and torture by the TBZ for months said Saddam Haftar threatened him upon his release: “You have a choice. Either you work for us, or live like an animal who eats and sleeps without hopes or dreams or aspirations.”
Several relatives of former detainees said they pleaded directly with Saddam Haftar and Omar Imraj’, pleading for them to release their loved ones. One former detainee informed Saddam Haftar about the abuse taking place in the detention centre, but he took no action to end the violations.
“Without the international community shifting its approach on Libya to prioritize human rights over short-sighted political interests, countless more people living at the mercy of the TBZ face being abducted, killed, tortured or disappeared. All states should exercise universal jurisdiction to investigate commanders and members of the TBZ who are suspected of responsibility for crimes under international law and, where there is sufficient admissible evidence, issue arrest warrants and seek to prosecute them,” said Hussein Baoumi.
Libya has been engulfed in armed conflict and political divisions since 2011, with parallel governments, each supported by unaccountable militias and armed groups, claiming legitimacy. The LAAF controls and carries out government-like functions in Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya, and large swathes of eastern and southern Libya.
TBZ is one of the largest and most influential armed groups that operate under LAAF, comprised of a mix of career soldiers who fought on the side of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 and fighters from tribes allied to LAAF.