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Barack Obama and his supporters are no doubt hoping the lion’s share of the credit for the deposing and killing of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi will go to the president, who himself expressed praise for the rebels back in September. “Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation. After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant,” Mr. Obama said at the time. They are indeed free from a tyrant. Whether they are free from tyranny is another matter. The final days of the fighting in and around the city of Sirte resulted in a massacre, with 53 people methodically executed at a hotel — apparently by a faction of the same rebels who have assumed control of the country.
“We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This requires the immediate attention of the Libyan authorities to investigate what happened and hold accountable those responsible.”
The Libyan authority at the moment is the National Transitional Council (NTC) chaired by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, and the likelihood of a competent investigation taking place is slim: on Monday volunteers were busy scrubbing the garden of the Mahari Hotel, where the alleged atrocity appears to have taken place. The volunteers, who said the dead were comprised of “at least two former Gaddafi government officials, local loyalist fighters and maybe civilians,” have collected dozens of bodies. But other evidence of the massacre, such as shell casings, plastic ties used to bind the hands of the victims, and patches of bloody grass remain behind.
Complicating any investigation is the fact that the bodies, which were found clustered together, were already in an advanced state of decomposition when they were viewed by HRW observers on October 23rd. HRW noted that the “condition of the bodies suggests the victims were killed approximately one week prior to their discovery, between October 14 and October 19. The bloodstains on the grass directly below the bodies, bullet holes visible in the ground, and the spent cartridges of AK-47 and FN-1 rifles scattered around the site strongly suggest that some, if not all of the people, were shot and killed in the location where they were discovered.”
According to witnesses HRW interviewed, anti-Gaddafi rebels from the city of Misrata had been in control of that section of Sirte since early October. Anti-Gaddafi brigades are organized according to their city of origin, and the city of Misrata has more that 100 brigades (katiba) which contain small numbers of fighters who operated semi-autonomously during battle. The names of five of those brigades, the “Tiger Brigade” (Al-Nimer), the “Support Brigade” (Al-Isnad), the “Jaguar Brigade” (Al-Fahad), the “Lion Brigade” (Al-Asad), and the “Citadel Brigade” (Al-Qasba), covered the walls and entrance of the hotel. This was apparently due to the fact that they used the facility as a base of operations. HRW did not directly accuse these five brigades of conducting the massacre, but said their presence at the hotel when it occurred “requires immediate investigation.”
The current record of the National Transitional Council suggests such immediacy is a pipe dream for both practical and political reasons. Practically speaking, the rebels who ostensibly liberated the nation are comprised of several separate militias. Despite repeated attempts, the NTC has failed to establish a chain of command among those militias or form a national army. Thus, despite several alleged incidents of arbitrary arrests, torture or murder, the mechanisms for dealing with formal investigations and prosecutions remain largely undeveloped. Politically speaking, the NTC’s attempt to burnish its own legitimacy requires it to establish relationships with the leaders of those militias, which may lead to more than a few alleged incidents of extra-legal activity being downplayed, ignored altogether or blamed on Gaddafi and his loyalist forces.
This last fallback position appears to be the stance the NTC is adopting with regard to the killing of Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the rebel’s top military commander, as well as two of his aides, back in August. Younis, former aide and interior minister to Gaddafi, defected on February 20th, and was credited with helping the rebels overthrow the regime’s military garrison in the city of Benghazi. When the murders occurred, Younis was reportedly in the hands of rebel forces. NTC Chairman Abdel-Jalil had promised to investigate that incident, claiming no one, “not even the highest officials” would remain above suspicion. Yet he proposed that Gaddafi loyalists were responsible, even as other members of his organization revealed that rebels remained the chief suspects in the killing.
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