FRANCE 24 gained access to a detention centre administered by a revolutionary militia in the outskirts of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. We found an armed force with the full authority of regular police, but which exercises its power at random.
The Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) is attempting to set up a police force and army that it fully controls to replace that of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi. But for now, law and order in the country is dominated by independent militias, whose power goes largely unchecked.
For example, one armed group seized control of Tripoli’s airport in early June, temporarily shutting it down. Or most recently, four International Criminal Court envoys were held on suspicion of espionage while visiting Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Their release was announced on July 2, after nearly a month in detention.
Re-taking control of the country’s armed forces is of vital importance for Libya’s post-revolutionary authorities, who on Saturday organised the country’s first free elections in over 40 years.
A Moroccan man arrested because his brother couldn’t pay rent
One prison guard agreed to show us two of the cells. Each had seven or eight mattresses strewn on the floor. The rooms were clean, and the prisoners showed no sign of having been mistreated.
We spoke to three of the men held in these cells. The first was a thirty-year-old Moroccan who said he had been arrested because his brother fled the city without paying rent on his store. The store’s landlord reportedly called the Forsan militia and asked them to detain the man until his brother paid up – and they complied. He had been held there for four days, he said, and had no access to legal defence.
We asked the person in charge of the detention centre, who said he was a policeman working with the militia, more about this prisoner. He confirmed that the man, who was in the country illegally, would be held until his brother showed up. He added that the two men had also been accused of theft.
Sharing the same cell was a young Libyan man. His own father had accused him of stealing money, and had personally asked for his incarceration.
A neighbouring jail cell held men who had been charged with more serious crimes. We were able to ask a young Libyan, who had been accused of shooting a woman to death, a few questions. He was allegedly arrested by another militia group, which then handed him over to the Forsan militia pending his transfer to police.
“Nobody is afraid of the police”
Militia leaders have set up an entire system in parallel with the official police force, which they say isn’t prepared to ensure residents’ safety. Although many militiamen haven’t received any formal training, they are sometimes responsible for completing and issuing official documents, like fines or arrest warrants. However, when one considers that the vast majority of people are denied access to legal council, these small gestures appear superficial at best.
Members of Forsan’s militia argue that because the police lack any authority, the town would spiral into chaos without them. Although probably correct, it is also true that militias often have too much power, as illustrated by the examples above. With no apparent system of checks and balances to guarantee a citizen’s rights, anyone could be arrested at any time. The militias are in charge of arrests, investigations and the decision to hold someone in custody or not. Such power could easily be corrupted to favour the wealthy, influential or well-connected.
Meanwhile, the NTC is trying to gradually retake control of the militias: two members of a special Interior Ministry force tasked with overseeing armed groups were stationed at the Forsan militia headquarters entrance. Yet when one digs a little deeper, it becomes apparent that the two men were recruited from within the ranks of the militia group. It’s hard to believe, though, that allegiances are as easy to change as a uniform.