Libyan rebels set up a makeshift prison in the coastal city of Misrata last summer, as they battled the forces of Moammar Gadhafi, with the goal of showing the world how their new government would be better than the iron-fisted regime. They gave prisoners hot meals, ping-pong tables, and access to foreign doctors.
But on Thursday, doctors from the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières halted their work in the prison, complaining that a growing number of the inmates showed clear signs of torture. On the same day, the watchdog agency Amnesty International released a report that said some detainees recently died in Libyan custody, and that their injuries suggested brutal interrogation.
These reports, according to aid workers and some local officials, fit a pattern now emerging in the new Libya of central authorities failing to enforce the democratic vision trumpeted by the revolutionaries last year – a vision backed with NATO air power, including Canadian CF-18 fighter jets.
Tripoli’s new rulers still do not control the entire country, with battles continuing in the southern town of Bani Walid, and with many places conquered by the rebels showing a frightening degree of lawlessness.
Gun battles between bands of former revolutionary fighters occur regularly, and armed gangs without official authority make arrests for unknown reasons.
Even the birthplace of the revolution, the eastern city of Benghazi, saw rioters looting the office of transitional council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, while the politician was inside the building on Saturday. His deputy resigned the next day.
“The central authorities, and even the local authorities are clearly having problems – to use an understatement,” said Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty researcher who covered the revolution from its beginning.
If the revolution does slip into chaos, a leading indicator may be the situation at the former school in Misrata that became the city’s main prison for captured pro-Gadhafi fighters. Hisham Imbayrika, 35, a long-bearded notary, volunteered his services as the prison’s founding director when rebels overran the city last summer and large numbers of regime troops started to surrender.
Mr. Imbayrika opened the prison’s doors to The Globe and Mail without an appointment in August, revealing a clean and apparently well-managed facility. His staff had pushed aside wooden desks and placed sleeping mats and blankets on classroom floors. The rooms were spartan, but visibly better than the dirty cells of rebel detention facilities in eastern Libya.
The few injured prisoners appeared to have suffered their wounds in battle, not at the hands of their captors. At the time, Mr. Imbayrika expressed pride at the fact that Misrata’s rebels treated their enemies humanely – but he could not say the same thing when reached by telephone on Thursday.
“Yes, I must tell you, there is some torture now,” Mr. Imbayrika said. He resigned as prison director in October, he said, but continues to visit the city’s prisons on a regular basis. He disputed parts of the Amnesty report, denying knowledge of deaths in custody and extreme forms of mistreatment cited in the report, such as “electric shocks with live wires and Taser-like electro-shock weapons.”
But the former director confirmed that he had seen prisoners who suffered beatings with fists, sticks, and rifle butts. He blamed “volunteer rebels who run unofficial places of detention,” echoing concerns from foreign human-rights workers about the profusion of armed factions in Libya.
“In the early months we thought we could talk to the local authorities about these problems, but things really degraded,” said Bart Janssens, MSF’s director of operations in Brussels.
Over and over, Mr. Janssens said, armed men dragged prisoners out of the Misrata prison and took them to cells elsewhere in the city for interrogation, until doctors at the jail started to feel they were being used to revive patients between torture sessions.
“It became unacceptable,” Mr. Janssens said in an interview. “We were patching people up so they could be re-interrogated.”
The aid group says it treated 115 people with wounds inflicted by torture in recent months, and reported every case to the authorities in Misrata without seeing any action to stop the abuse.