THE moral authority of Libya's new government was called into question by two international aid groups yesterday as confidence begins to falter that the National Transitional Council, backed by Western governments in last year's civil war, can deliver on its promises to deliver freedom and democracy.
Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) brought an abrupt halt to its operations in the Libyan town of Misrata after being asked by officials to treat torture victims, in some cases to allow members of the country's new leadership to abuse the prisoners again.
The move came as Amnesty International said it has collected evidence that Gaddafi supporters had been tortured to death in makeshift detention centres.
The claims by MSF in Libya's third largest town – a centre of resistance against the Gaddafi regime last year – come amid growing concern for the security situation and evidence of human rights violations. Earlier this week, fighters loyal to the former dictator raised the old Libyan green standard above the key oil town of Bani Walid after fighting that led to at least four deaths.
Human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns that local authorities have routinely used torture against suspected opponents. In particular, they warned that sub-Saharan Africans, who were accused of being mercenaries during the nine-month conflict, are being targeted. MSF has been working in Misrata since last August and the group says it has been increasingly confronted with patients who have injuries caused by torture during interrogation sessions outside official detention centres and jails.
MSF has treated 115 people with torture-related wounds and reported all the cases to authorities in Misrata. Since January, several of the patients who were returned to interrogation centres have been tortured again, MSF said in a statement. "Some officials have sought to exploit and obstruct MSF's medical work," said the charity's general director, Christopher Stokes. "Patients were brought to us for medical care between interrogation sessions, so that they would be fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable.
"Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions."
Other humanitarian groups have raised fears. Amnesty International revealed that several prisoners accused of being Gaddafi loyalists died as a result of torture while being held in makeshift detention centres. Delegates from the group had found visible evidence of torture on detainees during visits to prisons.
The United Nations envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, said the NTC was failing to rein in militia groups: "The former regime may have been toppled, but the harsh reality is that the Libyan people continue to have to live with its deep-rooted legacy."
The allegations come almost a year after the start of the uprising against Gaddafi's 40-year rule. After initially being brutally suppressed, the rebel movement blossomed with assistance from a Nato bombing campaign.
Speaking in August last year, David Cameron said: "There will undoubtedly be difficult days ahead. No transition is ever smooth or easy.
"But today the Arab Spring is a step further away from oppression and dictatorship and a step closer to freedom and democracy. And the Libyan people are closer to their dream of a better future."
Last night, the Foreign Office urged the NTC to investigate the charities' reports. "The MSF report is shocking and the Libyan authorities should thoroughly investigate the claims. We condemn all human rights abuses and have repeatedly made clear that the transitional government must live up to the standards that it has set for itself and make a clean break with the past," a spokesman said.
In its report, Amnesty said it had found that detainees had been suspended in contorted positions, beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains and bars and wooden sticks, and given electric shocks with live wires and Taser-like electro-shock weapons.
"After all the promises to get detention centres under control, it is horrifying to find that there has been no progress to stop the use of torture," said Donatella Rovera, of Amnesty.
Last July, Human Rights Watch reported widespread looting and arson by the Nato-backed rebels.
Independent News Service