New torture claims shatter Libyan dreams

It is three months since rebels declared victory over a dictator. Fighters hoped for a new, democratic Libya. But now, troubling reports are emerging of torture, violence and civil war.

Last Autumn, as rebel fighters in Libya swept away the last remnants of Muammar Gaddafi‘s tyrannical regime, the victory was celebrated as a great triumph against oppression.

On October 23rd, 2011, Libya’s ‘National Transitional Council’ (the NTC) declared the country officially ‘liberated’. Shops could begin to open. Oil exports could resume. Fighters could return home to their families and a new democratic government could be chosen to lead the country into a bright and prosperous future.

Things have not, however, been so simple. National elections are still on course for a June start date, but an atmosphere of suspicion and fear has replaced the hopeful spirit of three months ago.

In the last week, two events in particular have shaken Libya’s fragile confidence. First, there was a worrying outbreak of violence in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid. Angry residents, fed up with being abused by so-called ‘freedom fighters’, stormed a local barracks and released a group of Gaddafi loyalists from captivity. Government forces were driven from the town.

Second, new reports emerged over the weekend which confirmed allegations from aid workers that detained Gaddafi loyalists were being tortured while in prison. Some inmates, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International, have died because of the severity of the abuse.

Officials from Libya’s transition government say this torture is being carried out by independent militias and is not approved by the state.

But the torture allegations and the violence in Bani Walid both highlight an uncomfortable truth: that the NTC – which was meant to lead Libya to freedom – cannot control its own territory or even its own armed forces.

Instead, most of Libya is under the control of brigades of young men, formed during the revolution to fight Gaddafi but now idle, armed, and potentially very dangerous. With no jobs – and often no homes – to go back to, these men are refusing to give up their weapons, or the new-found power that comes with them.

The right direction?

So has Libya’s revolution simply failed? NTC president Mustafa Jalil warned that his country was facing a ‘bottomless pit’. Another minister resigned, complaining of an ‘atmosphere of hatred’. The fight at Bani Walid, say pessimistic observers, may turn out to be the first battle of a new and bitter civil war.

Others take a less grim view. Yes, they admit, the fact that torture still goes on is a stain on Libya’s conscience. Yes, the militias must be disarmed. But, as one diplomat pointed out, ‘after going through what Libya went through, any country would have problems.’ Progress may be slow, the argument goes, but at least Libyans are moving in the right direction.

You Decide

  1. Is the Libyan revolution a failure?
  2. Should the NTC take the blame for torture committed by independent militias?


  1. Imagine you are arguing with the commander of a rebel brigade that had captured some Gaddafi loyalists hiding in the desert. The commander – who was tortured himself in a Gaddafi jail – wants to beat the loyalists to make them talk. How do you persuade him not to?
  2. How does Libya fit into the overall story of the Arab Spring? Choose another Middle Eastern country where an uprising has taken place and write a report explaining what has happened there and what problems have been faced on the road to freedom.

Some People Say...

“Rebels are usually even worse than the dictators they overthrow.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What would happen if things turned sour in Libya?
The first fear is that the country could descend into anarchy and a long, bloody civil war might ensue. The second is that another oppressive government could take charge.
That sounds bad for Libyans, but should the rest of us be worried?
What’s bad for Libya is bad for the world. First, the country is an important supplier of oil, so chaos there could affect petrol prices (and economies in general) all over the world. Second, the country is a favourite stop off point for criminals smuggling weapons – or people – into the EU. If Libya becomes a war zone, this river of contraband could turn into a flood.

Word Watch

Libya is one of the largest countries in the world, but most of its vast land area is uninhabited desert, with a population of only six million people spread along a narrow strip by the Mediterranean coast. Until last year, the country had been ruled for four decades by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Muammar Gaddafi
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi took power in Libya following a military coup in 1969, overthrowing the country’s monarchy and ruling as the ‘Brother Leader’ until he was killed in last year’s uprising. A flamboyant and eccentric autocrat, he was famous for, among other things, having a gold-plated pistol and keeping a special regiment of female bodyguards.
Amnesty International
A human rights charity that campaigns all over the world for an end to oppression. Anybody can get involved in their mass letter-writing campaigns – visit their website to find out more.


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