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Rights group: Libya militias used machine guns on protesters

CAIRO (AP) — A prominent human rights organization Thursday accused Libyan armed groups linked to the Tripoli-based government of using heavy weapons to disperse anti-corruption rallies last month in the capital and of detaining, torturing and forcibly disappearing protesters.

Between Aug. 23-29, Libyan militias used machine guns and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns against protesters, allegedly killing one and wounding others, a statement from Human Rights Watch said. At least 24 people, including a local reporter, were detained and beaten, it said.

“Political divisions and security concerns do not justify armed groups coming at protesters with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons to intimidate them and disperse protests,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher for HRW. “Tripoli authorities should investigate and publicly disclose the names of the armed groups and commanders who failed to comply with basic policing standards and hold them to account.”

A government spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Last month, hundreds of Libyans took to the streets of Tripoli and other cities that fall under the control of the U.N.-supported government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj to protest deteriorating economic conditions. At the time, Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga acknowledged that a militia group, which he did not name, had fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters and that an investigation was underway. Subsequently, Sarraj briefly relieved Bashaga of his duties for questioning.

Earlier, Sarraj had said in a televised speech that protesters did not have a permit to gather and announced a 24-hour curfew to fight the coronavirus pandemic, a move that protesters believed was meant to keep them from rallying.

The New York-based rights group named three militias with ties to Sarraj’s government as the perpetrators of the rights violations, including the Interior Ministry-linked Al-Nawasi Brigade, the Special Deterrence Force and General Security.

Militias have played a key role in the country’s civil war, with the U.N.-supported government employing an array of militiamen to fight their rivals in the east. They have proved difficult for the Tripoli government to control in the past.

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The county has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 19 people, including demonstrators, their relatives and friends and examined photos and video of security forces using excessive force.

Relatives and friends of two released protesters who were held in a military base for four days said both men told them they were tortured and forced to sign pledges that they would not engage in any future anti-government rallies, the HRW statement said.

The statement cited a recent media report as saying that 13 protesters were released and that around eight remain in custody.

“Criminal justice authorities should promptly present all remaining detainees to a judge to determine the legality of their detention and should either charge them promptly with a crime or release them, as detention before trial should be the exception not the rule,” the HRW report said.