When yesterday’s rebels become today’s torturers

The United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), adopted back in 1984, specifies that no person should be subjected to any kind of torture, cruel or degrading treatment. This convention follows on from the 1975 adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Article One of the United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it as the intentional infliction of physical and mental pain for the purpose of obtaining information from a person, or coercing them into confessing to a crime, or forcing them to incriminate a third party to confess to any alleged crime that person may have committed. Such pain and suffering is inflicted with the express knowledge or tacit consent of a person or group acting in a legal and official capacity. Article Two states that there are no exceptional circumstances that may be invoked by any party to justify the application of torture. States of emergency, civil unrest, warfare and so on cannot be used as pretexts to legitimise the use of torture.

Each government is required to provide training of their law enforcement officials to eliminate the use of torture, to identify any cases of torture and report them to the proper authorities. The survivors of torture can take legal action against their torturers, and shall be entitled to receive compensation for their pain and suffering. No confession extracted through torture shall have any legal merit or standing in a court of law. The last point is specified in Article 15 of the United Nation CAT. The main provisions of the CAT are summarised here.

Qadhafi regime and torture

One of the main charges against the former Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi was the latter’s use of torture against political opponents. That is undoubtedly true. Qadhafi had started his rule of Libya in 1969 as a pan-Arab, Nasserist socialist dedicated to developing his country’s resources, throwing off the influence of foreign corporations, and spreading pan-Arab nationalism to other Arab countries repressed by Western-supported dictatorships, particularly the royalist regimes of the Gulf monarchies. Starting in the early 1990s, Qadhafi embarked on a Sadat-style opening up of the economy to European oil corporations that he had formerly expelled. Qadhafi retreated from Arab nationalism and reoriented to a more pan-African strategy, promoting his version of ‘socialism’ throughout the sub-Saharan countries.

From 2001, Qadhafi joined the so-called ‘war on terror’, and opened up his country to the CIA rendition programme. This involves taking terrorism suspects from the hands of the western intelligence services and imprisoning them. Suspects arrested on the flimsiest pretext were rendered to third-party countries, like Egypt and Libya, where torture was known to have been used. The cooperation of the Qadhafi regime with western intelligence agencies surfaced a few years ago. While detainees were routinely tortured in Libyan prisons, the CIA and MI6 continued to cooperate with such a torture regime. Qadhafi’s army and police were committing their worst crimes while operating in close collaboration with the Western powers.

The people of Libya rose up in defiance of such a tyrannical regime, which had deteriorated from a pan-Arab, semi-socialist regime into a state-populist government with deep ties to the imperialist transnational corporations. Human rights were trampled in the interests of corporate profit. The leaders of Britain, France, Germany and other countries loudly condemned the violence of the Qadhafi regime and pledged their support for the rebels in their efforts to oust the Qadhafi government. While the armed militias of Misrata and Benghazi were fighting Qadhafi, they received logistical support and training from Britain’s elite SAS troops, and British military advisers provided the ‘boots on the ground’ to ensure that any rebel victory could be quickly channeled into a pro-Western direction. The Gulf emirate of Qatar was a key Arab player in organising the rebels militarily and providing them with political and diplomatic support. Qadhafi’s overthrow was said to herald a new era of democracy and freedom, according to Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel.

Torture Libyan style

The medical group Doctors Without Borders has announced it will stop work in Libya, particularly in Misrata, because detainees are being routinely tortured and denied adequate medical care. The group has stated that the current political leaders in Misrata only provide torture victims with medical care so that they can be revived and subjected to further torture and beatings.

Doctors Without Borders has documented prisoner abuse, treating victims of cigarette burns, electric shocks, and renal failure from successive beatings. The National Transitional Council (NTC) is either unwilling or unable to control the armed militias from operating as a law unto themselves. The British government has made some lukewarm, mild criticisms of the Misrata militias, stating that the NTC should live up to the high standards they have set themselves. Libya’s new National Army Security Service (NASS) is the main body responsible for carrying out the torture of detainees. Setting aside the particularly gruesome killing of Qadhafi himself by rebel troops which in itself constitutes a war crime, the former Libyan rebels, who condemned the torture crimes of the former regime, are now behaving no less savagely themselves.

Part of a pattern

The international intervention in Libya to overthrow Qadhafi was waged on the pretext of defeating a tyrannical government that tortured and abused its own people. The current mistreatment of prisoners in the new Libya may be dismissed as just a temporary aberration, an exaction of revenge for eight-long months of heavy and brutal fighting against a regime desperate to hang on to the last. However, evidence has been compiled by Arab human rights organisations that detail the war crimes and abuses carried out by NATO and its associated Libyan proxies during the 2011 war.

An independent civil society mission, composed of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the International Legal Assistance Consortium and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, presented their findings in a report that details the casualties of NATO air strikes, the destruction of civilian targets, the coordination of NATO air strikes with rebel offensives on the ground, and the wholesale demolition of  the Qadhafi stronghold of Sirte and its attendant civilian casualties. The authors of the report carried out extensive field investigations throughout Libya’s cities and villages. The mission focused on the racially motivated attacks on the sub-Saharan African population, and documents the forcible mass expulsion of the African community of Tawherga. To add to the current woes of the National Transitional Council, the town of Bani Walid, the last major holdout of the Qadhafi regime, has been retaken by Qadhafi loyalists.

While the United Nations has expressed ‘alarm’ that the National Transitional Council has failed to stop torture in Libya’s prisons, it is doubtful whether the Western powers will do more than just issue banal platitudes about the use of torture in the ‘new’ Libya.  They have always condoned the practice of torture, particularly in developing countries, and the use of torture is now extending to the major capitalist countries. Last year, the Obama administration announced that those officials from the Bush-Cheney regime who ordered and approved the use of torture, would be granted full immunity from any investigation and criminal prosecution.

3 thoughts on “When yesterday’s rebels become today’s torturers

  1. Thanks to Rupen Savoulian for informing us about the UN conventions (CAT) against the use of torture and all other forms of anti-human abuse of prisoners. Some international organisations work and inform about torture and physical abuse of prisoners and detainees. Occasionally the main stream media also pick up some prominent story but otherwise the general practice of regular torture and abuse of prisoners that takes place in many parts of the world is not considered worthy of attention.

    The torture and abuse of many types of prisoners and dissenters is a general norm in many parts of the world, especially in, Asian, African, Latin American and East European countries. Let us hope that other political activists will also concentrate on the question of torture and thus strengthen those organisations and agencies that work against the use of torture and defend human rights.

    The case of Libya illustrates how the victimisation and large scale torture is being practised in various places by the NTC. This has to stop and human rights activists have a big task before them.

  2. What is truly sickening is the spectacle of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, lecturing the rest of the world on human rights.

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