Human Rights Voices

While the UN devotes its human rights operations to the demonization of the democratic state of Israel above all others and condemns the United States more often than the vast majority of non-democracies around the world, the voices of real victims around the world must be heard.

Libya, February 21, 2011

Libya Death Toll Surges in Crackdown

Original source

The Wall Street Journal

CAIRO-Violent clashes between protesters and security forces snowballed in cities throughout eastern Libya Sunday, as the country's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, struggled to crush an uprising aimed at ending his 42-year rule.

Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed 173 deaths in protests so far, doubling the group's toll from Saturday. But Human Rights Watch and doctors in Benghazi said they thought the final death toll would be significantly higher. Protests also sprang up on the outskirts of Libya's capital of Tripoli for the first time since the unrest began five days ago, according to residents. Though the protests were quickly quashed by security forces deployed in force throughout the capital, the spread of unrest to Mr. Gadhafi's center of power was a sign that demonstrations were gaining momentum and no longer confined to the country's eastern half.

Late on Sunday, the country's Warfala tribe, one of the largest among Libya's population of 6.4 million, announced it was throwing its heft behind the protesters, suggesting momentum was tipping further against Mr. Gadhafi. The son of the Libyan leader appeared on television to deliver a 40-minute speech early Monday morning, blaming the unrest on foreign agents, drug dealers and Islamic radicals. He warned the regime's fall would bring poverty and civil war on Libya. Mr. Gadhafi's 38-year-old son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, said in a defiant, rambling and confused speech on state TV that his father remained in Tripoli, backed by the army and leading the battle against those seeking to destroy Libya. The prerecorded speech came as the Libyan leader's hold on the country appeared to be slipping, with reports of violence and unrest in Tripoli escalating, while the hold of the police and army in the country seemed to be evaporating.

But the younger Mr. Gadhafi focused the majority of his speech on blaming Egypt, Tunisia, as well as other Arab and African countries, accusing them of sending agents to Libya to destroy the country and steal its oil. "The Egyptians and Tunisians, they have weapons and they are here, they are a playing a big part in what's happening here," Mr. Gadhafi said. He warned Libyans that his father's ouster after 42 years in power would lead the country into civil war and a "spiral of violence worse than Iraq."

No Confirmation That Gadhafi Left Libya

A senior U.S. administration official said the White House is analyzing the speech "to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform."

"We will seek clarification from senior Libyan officials, as we continue to raise with them the need to avoid violence against peaceful protesters and respect universal rights," the official added. Earlier in the day in eastern Libya, residents of several cities said government security forces had withdrawn from the streets to their bases, ceding all or parts of cities to protesters, at least for now.

In the city of Bayda, east of Benghazi and close to Libya's border with Egypt, witnesses said local police turned their guns on the army's second brigade after it deployed inside the city and fired live ammunition at protesters. The local police's flip forced the surprised army forces to withdraw to the airport on the city's outskirts, according to witnesses. Libyan state TV broadcast images of burning buildings and blamed the "acts of sabotage and burning" on "foreign agents," echoing the attempts made by other Arab leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen to dismiss the domestic unrest. Residents said it was the first time government media had acknowledged the growing protests, suggesting the violence was spreading to the point that the government had no choice but to address it directly.

The fiercest fighting appeared to be raging in the city of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, which lies on the country's northeast coast. Benghazi's residents said some neighborhoods of the city had been consumed by full-fledged urban warfare between protesters and pro-government forces. Residents said pro-Gadhafi loyalists driving around in cars fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at anyone in the streets.

For the first time since protests started on Feb. 15, there were numerous reports that protesters had seized weapons caches from abandoned government bases and had gone on the offensive against government barracks. "The soldiers have fled and the citizens have taken their weapons," one resident of Benghazi said in a telephone interview. "Citizens now have rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs and hand grenades. I can hear the bullets now and RPGs and people beeping their car horn in celebrations."

Fears of More Violence

Many residents and activists inside and outside Libya said they feared the coming days could see a sharp escalation in violence.

"There are really no constraints at all on what Gadhafi can do and we've reached the point where a lot of peaceful protesters are starting to arm themselves to do battle," said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch following events in Libya. A U.S. official said on Sunday that the State Department checked and couldn't confirm reports that Col. Gadhafi had left Libya. The official said the U.S. has been in regular contact with Libyan officials over the past two days, urging an end of the use of force. But the official said Washington hasn't been in direct contact with the Gadhafi family.

"We are continually assessing the situation on the ground and urging restraint," said the senior U.S. official. The highest level contact was Friday, the official said, when the State Department's Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, called Libyan Foreign Minister, Musa Kusa. The U.S.'s ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, has been out of Tripoli for more than a month in the wake of the leaking of diplomatic cables by the Website WikiLeaks. In one of the cables, Mr. Cretz wrote to the State Department about what he described as Col. Gadhafi's erratic behavior, drawing a rebuke from the Libyan government. U.S. officials said Mr. Cretz was recalled, in part, due to concerns about his security in Tripoli. Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on Libya's politics and history at Dartmouth College, added that the government's security forces "are known to be very vicious."

"No mater how high the human cost, they know they have to put these demonstrations down, because if they fail, they're the ones that will pay the highest price," he said. "They have absolutely nothing to lose." The country's eastern half, of which Benghazi is the hub, has a long history of resistance to outsiders and of friction with Mr. Gadhafi's government in Tripoli. Since taking power in a coup in 1969, Mr. Gadhafi has sidelined the region's tribes in favor of his own Qatatfa tribe in the competition for government posts. Though much of the country's oil wealth is in the east, the territory sees a disproportionately low share of state investment and resources. The current unrest traces its roots back to an uprising by student Islamists in the 1990s that Mr. Gadhafi viciously suppressed. Mr. Gadhafi deployed the army's feared second brigade, commanded by one of Mr. Gadhafi's sons, Khamis, against the students. Those that weren't killed in the ensuing mayhem were thrown in jail, many of them in Tripoli's Abu Salim Prison.

About a year later, in 1996, prisoners at Abu Salim, many of whom were from Benghazi, launched an uprising. The regime took no mercy on the prison rebels. The ensuing bombardment left 1,200 prisoners dead, according to Human Rights Watch. Ever since, the "Abu Salim massacre," as it's known to many Libyans, has been a rallying cry for activists and opposition in Libya, and a thorn in the regime's side.

The protests now shaking the country first flared outside Benghazi's courthouse on Feb. 15 after security forces arrested two outspoken members of the families of victims of the Abu Salim incident in 1996, as well as a human-rights lawyer, pushing their demands for compensation from the government, according to human-rights activists.

The early days of protest saw scattered violence. On Saturday, the violence levels escalated dramatically, according to residents of Benghazi and human-rights activists. Residents finished burying one of the early victims of the protests in Benghazi. As they marched from the graveyard, and neared an army base in downtown Benghazi, soldiers opened fire with machine guns, according to numerous accounts from residents. The ensuing clashes continued to rage Sunday, and have engulfed parts of the city in full-fledged urban warfare, according to residents.

"It's like a guerrilla war," a female resident of Benghazi said on Sunday morning. "There is a battle going on, and sometimes one part is controlled by the protesters, and sometimes other parts are. There are corpses in the street."

On Sunday, several residents said the base appeared to be the last bastion where government forces were concentrated in Benghazi. "Neither side has complete control of Benghazi," said a student in Benghazi who would identify himself only as Abdullah. He said the government had cut electricity in parts of the city. He said he had seen 13 dead bodies in just one part of the city.

The Internet remains down in most of the country after the government shut down servers early Saturday morning, according to Renesys, an Internet access watchdog. Journalists were banned from entering the country or reporting on events, making it impossible to confirm many of the reports from residents. Residents reached by phone were gripped by fear, unwilling to give their names over the telephone for fear that the government was monitoring phone calls. A Libyan journalist in Tripoli said some of his colleagues who had spoken with Arab TV stations had been arrested within minutes of speaking on air.