(Tripoli) – Libyan authorities should conduct an independent investigation into the quelling of a prison protest in which at least 19 inmates sustained gunshot or shrapnel wounds. The protest took place on August 26, 2013, at Tripoli Main Corrections and Rehabilitation Institution, known by its former name al-Roueimy, where around 500 detainees, including five women, were being held.
Government and prison authorities and 20 inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch gave conflicting accounts of what occurred at the facility in Tripoli when a two-day hunger strike by detainees sparked a violent confrontation with guards at the jail. As backup, authorities called members of the Supreme Security Committee, a body of former anti-Gaddafi fighters with a mandate to conduct policing and nominally under the Ministry of Interior.
“The government needs to establish what happened on August 26 and explain how so many prisoners had gunshot wounds and other serious injuries,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone found to have used unlawful violence against prisoners should be held to account under Libya’s criminal law.”
Al-Roueimy prison is under the formal authority of the Ministry of Justice and holds detainees related to the 2011 uprising that ousted former strongman Muammar Gaddafi. The “security” detainees include loyalists of the former government, members of Gaddafi’s security forces and volunteers who fought alongside these forces.
Following the violence on August 26, authorities moved around 150 of the detainees to the adjacent Ayn Zara prison, also administered by the Ministry of Justice. Human Rights Watch spoke to 20 of those prisoners on August 29, both individually and in groups.
Inmates accused al-Roueimy prison authorities of using extensive and unnecessary violence to force an end to the two-day hunger strike by detainees. They gave consistent accounts. They said the hunger strike was to protest their prolonged detention without access to a judge or any legal procedures.
All detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said security forces at the prison resorted first to the use of firearms, including automatic weapons, after discussions on ending the hunger strike broke down, before using tear gas as a secondary measure.
One detainee told Human Rights Watch how the negotiations broke down around 4 p.m. and arguments began between the protesters and guards. “This led to heated shouting matches and ultimately one guard opened fire on us with a Kalashnikov,” he said. “I saw one inmate hit the ground after being shot in the thigh. He was bleeding profusely.”
The detainee said the shooting sparked other prisoners to break down cell doors and set fire to mattresses. The guards responded by opening fire with automatic weapons over the next four hours, at times directly at prisoners, he and other detainees said.
Senior officials of al-Roueimy prison gave Human Rights Watch a different version of events. Acting prison director Ali al-Saadi and former director Haitham Beitelmal said they had faced a “mutiny” by around 150 inmates, which spread to all sections of the prison. They said guards at first used tear gas and then fired only rubber bullets over prisoners’ heads “to scare them”. They said four prison officers sustained minor injuries and that prison authorities had launched an internal investigation into the events.
On August 26, the spokesperson for the judicial police, which runs justice ministry prisons, told a press conference that security forces had quelled the prisoners’ protest “peacefully.” He said security forces had used only nonlethal means, including “smoke bombs, water cannons and tear gas,” and had caused no casualties. “Not a single shot was fired at the protesters,” he said, while suggesting that most prisoners’ injuries were due to a “stampede.”
Minister of Justice Salah al-Marghani acknowledged to Human Rights Watch on August 31 that authorities had been slow to address weaknesses in prison security and that untrained and improperly equipped guards may have contributed to the escalation of violence. “We were slower than we should have been in providing nonlethal weapons to the prison authorities,” he said.
Eight of the 20 detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch sustained bullet wounds in their arms or legs, including two from whom the bullets were yet to be extracted. At least 19 inmates had injuries that they said were caused by shrapnel from ricocheting gunfire, which was confirmed by the clinic sources, suggesting arbitrary shooting of live ammunition by guards into areas occupied by detainees. Most had sustained injuries to their legs or arms, although one received a head wound.
Sources at the Ayn Zara prison clinic, which treated inmates injured in the al-Roueimy prison violence, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that some of those admitted had sustained direct gunshot wounds and others had injuries apparently caused by fragments from ricocheting bullets.
“The government should also address inmates’ underlying grievances about their prolonged detention without charge and lack of access to lawyers,” Stork said.
Accounts from Witnesses
Human Rights Watch is withholding the identity of the inmates whose interviews are cited below to safeguard them against possible reprisals.
One inmate told Human Rights Watch that detainees began a peaceful hunger strike on August 24 to protest their prolonged incarceration in breach of judicial procedures. Prison authorities, he said, had repeatedly told detainees that they would be taken before a prosecutor to commence legal procedures, yet: “Some of us have been detained for two years without any formal charge or seeing a judge even once, so, we decided to go on strike.”
Inmates said that the authorities had tried to convince them to end the hunger strike before resorting quickly to lethal force, including shooting with firearms, at about 4 p.m. on August 26. They said the shooting continued for four hours.
One inmate who said he was in a hallway together with other detainees when the violence began told Human Rights Watch:
The situation inside the prison escalated when prison authorities started to insult detainees. This led to heated shouting matches and ultimately one guard opened fire on us with a Kalashnikov. I saw one inmate hit the ground after being shot in the thigh. He was bleeding profusely. Another detainee rushed to carry him out of harm’s way and this is when tension reached a boiling point.
News spread fast that this inmate was fatally injured