Libya: Is a breakdown in order forcing NGOs out?

  • 27 January 2012
  • From the section World
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Image caption Medecins Sans Frontieres staff treating a man in Misrata

The decision by the French group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to withdraw its fieldworkers from prisons in the Libyan city of Misrata is an important and disturbing indicator of the situation in that country.

While some NGOs are guilty of trying to apply western 'best practice' in unrealistic ways, or to put the safety of their own teams ahead of project work, MSF's reputation, built over decades of operations in the most inhospitable parts of the world, suggests they should be listened to carefully both by the interim government in Libya and the western countries that assisted it to overthrow Muammar al Gaddafi's regime.

According to the NGO, in a few months its field workers have treated 115 people in the city's jail for wounds arising from torture.

"Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for further interrogation", says MSF director Christopher Stokes, "this is unacceptable".

When one considers that this is just one city, it is not unreasonable to suppose that hundreds or even thousands of detainees have been abused in this way.

'Score-settling'

Apparently those subjected to this treatment have been removed from Misrata's prisons, taken to 'interrogation centres' run by various militias or state agencies before being returned with bad bruises, broken bones, and other signs of beating. Some are suspected of loyalty to the Gaddafi regime, others of criminality, and with some it is completely unclear.

Has Libya overthrown an oppressive, centralised, regime that relied upon torture, with one that also uses brutal methods but is so diffuse and divided along regional or tribal lines that it cannot run the country?

It is too early to write off the interim government, the revolution still has huge support, and it is natural that it should take time to establish a new democracy after 42 years of dictatorship.

However, the torture in Misrata and other places suggests that a great deal of score-settling is going on - much of it along tribal or local lines - and that it is not petering out in a way that many might have hoped.

Arbitrary detention and abuse now seem to be fuelling a new insurgency among former regime supporters in places like Sirte, Abu Salim (a neighbourhood of Tripoli), and Bani Walid, as well as feuds between tribes.

There have already been warnings to the Libyan government from the Foreign Office and State Department about the mistreatment of people in prison.

It does not appear that these have produced any effective action from the authorities.

Rather the arbitrary nature of the arrests, who is being beaten by whom, and the signs of new violence from former regime members and tribal enemies all suggest a situation in which authority is fragmenting.