Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday called on Libya’s UN-backed National Accord Government (GNA) to investigate the fate of hundreds of people missing from a key city near the capital Tripoli. Dozens of mass graves were found there following the withdrawal of a widely feared militia loyal to Putist general Khalifa Haftar last summer.
In a statement, HRW quoted Libyan officials as saying that at least 338 residents of the city of Tarhuna were reported missing. The majority of them disappeared during a 14-month military campaign to conquer the capital led by forces loyal to eastern Haftar, according to the report.
The UN had expressed “horror” after the discovery of mass graves around Tarhuna in June last year.
The discovery came the day after the withdrawal of forces loyal to Haftar, who used Tarhuna as the main staging site for their attempt to take the capital in a military offensive launched in April 2019.
“Residents reported that the militia often abducted, arrested, tortured, killed and disappeared people who opposed them or who were suspected of doing so,” the rights guard added.
It called on GNA to “investigate what happened to the missing inhabitants” and recalled that 120 bodies had been exhumed from 27 mass graves, including women and children, since the first macabre discovery.
The rights group also appealed to foreign governments and the UN to “provide forensic experts and conduct DNA tests to assist with GNA’s investigations at the cemetery.”
“Families in Tarhuna whose loved ones have disappeared are facing a difficult time moving on with their lives,” said Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior researcher in Libya. “Authorities should respond to the grim discovery of mass graves by taking appropriate measures to identify the bodies and bring those responsible for the abuse to justice.”
Salah said senior commanders among Haftar’s forces “could be held responsible for abuses perpetrated by the al-Kaniyat militia in Tarhuna for which they were in charge.”
In November 2020, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) reported that Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli involved a pattern of violence and the use of mines by withdrawing forces that injured civilians, which is a war crime when used indiscriminately.
Libyan authorities told HRW that they have not yet identified the bodies. They said the main reason for the delay was the lack of funds and that some employees needed further training.
HRW explained that the al-Kaniyat militia, a family operation, controlled all aspects of life in Tarhuna from 2015 to June 2020, when it was liberated by GNA forces.
The city of Tarhuna, about 93 kilometers southeast of Tripoli and a gateway to Libya’s center and east, had for several years been controlled by the Kaniyat militia, run by the local al-Kani family, who fought alongside Haftar’s eastern illegal forces. It adopted the name of the 9th Brigade when the militia merged with Haftar.
Mohammed Khalifa al-Kani, widely regarded as a leader, was joined by four of his brothers – Abdelkhaleq, Muammar (Omar), Abdulrahim and Muhsen, who died in September 2019, HRW said.
Family members of the missing told HRW that their relatives were not fighters but were targeted because they opposed al-Kaniyat or the 2011 uprising that led to the killing and killing of the killer Moammar Gadhafi, who is ruled by the al-Kani family.
In an interview with HRW, one of the province’s residents, three of whom were abducted by the militia, said: “When they capture and kill someone, they also make sure to kill the rest of (the men in) his family so that they do not respond. When they have killed people, they seize their money and property. ”
Another resident whose relative Abu Baker Amer Abunaama was transferred on November 14, 2019 said: “Al-Kanis are ruthless and worked to eliminate anyone who could stand in their way. For them, if you are not with them, you are against them. ”
Kamal al-Siwi, head of the Tripoli Government’s agency for the search and identification of missing persons, told HRW that his agency has excavated 120 bodies, including women and children, in and around Tarhuna. Some of the bodies were found in handcuffs and most were in an “advanced decay”, which made it difficult for relatives to identify them, says al-Siwi in the HRW report.
Only three exhumed bodies have so far been identified and returned to their families for burial, al-Siwi added.
In November, the US Treasury Department sanctioned al-Kaniyat and its leader Mohamed al-Kani after finding it responsible for killing civilians whose bodies were found in many mass graves, as well as torture, forced disappearances and the displacement of civilians.
The sanctions sought to freeze all property belonging to those mentioned under US jurisdiction and to block their access to the world’s trading and banking system.