x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Libya's kidnappings for ransom show a state mired in chaos

Both the interim government and NTC have ignored the prerequisites of a fair election – namely, the peace and security that are dangerously lacking in many parts of Libya.

On March 28, I got a phone call from a friend in London telling me that a close mutual friend had been kidnapped by a group of armed men while he was driving in an area west of Tripoli. My friend had been shopping with his wife and three children in the busy Gargaresh district when he was stopped, forced out of the car, severely beaten and taken away.

His wife, unable to drive, was left with her children asking for help on the side of the road. Nobody helped her. An hour later, her brother-in-law arrived to take the family home and start the tedious job of trying to find out what had happened. In Tripoli these days, a person can easily vanish without trace.

Two days later, they found my friend incarcerated in the notorious Tajura prison on the other side of the city. The prison is operated outside of any jurisdiction, and there is no formal connection to Libyan authorities.

One month later, and my friend is still in Tajura, but someone smuggled in a phone and I was able to speak with him this week. He told me that there were about 300 inmates at the prison, none of whom have been charged with anything. About 20 of them are from my hometown of Bani Walid.

My friend told me that he had been beaten unconscious when he was first picked up, and the kidnappers had targeted him based on information from a driver at the university where we both worked. Apparently, his jailers believe that he is rich (he is not) and have insinuated that they would let him out if he paid them. At this point, his fate is still uncertain.

Over the past month, as I have been trying to help - in vain - I also found out that another friend was kidnapped on April 19 while driving towards Zlitan from Bani Walid. The kidnappers are members of local Zlitan militia; again, they represent no legal authority whatsoever.

These two latest kidnappings bring the total number of my friends who are missing, have been jailed or killed to 12 in this new Libya since October. I wonder how many more there have been whom I don't know about. Most of the missing and dead are university professors or highly qualified young professionals.

My friend who is now in Tajura worked at my university in Tripoli, where we developed many educational programmes, engaged the private sector and reached out to the world, becoming one of Libya's best links to the wider world of academia. Our networks extended from China to the United States in our efforts to bring home the best education that was available.

The second victim is a graduate of a British university and one of the best telecoms engineers in the country. Three years ago, he was the second-in-command at the regional telecoms company that covered, ironically, Zlitan. He never had any personal quarrels with people in Zlitan where he spent so much time on business trips.

These are only two crimes among the hundreds that are taking place in Libya almost daily, which never make it into the headlines. International rights groups have pointed out the appalling conditions in these illegal jails and have complained to the interim Libyan authorities about the lack of any legal framework for the hundreds of people who have been detained.

Yet the interim government and the National Transition Council continue to talk about "transitional justice" and elections in June. Abdurrahim El Keib, the prime minister, has hardly looked into these allegations, but he still finds the time to tour a new prison to show the world how far Libya has progressed towards democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

Both the interim government and NTC have ignored the prerequisites of a fair election - namely, the peace and security that are dangerously lacking in many parts of Libya. I am not sure that Libyans want elections and democracy more than they want security and safety in their homes.

In a country where tribal loyalty supersedes national identity, I cannot imagine any form of transitional justice without a successful national reconciliation process. Such a process should have got underway months ago but the lack of national leadership, chaotic government and foreign interference has all but destroyed the substance of the idea. "National reconciliation" is a situation where the peace is threatened, innocent lives are lost and private property is confiscated outside the law.

The democratic process in countries that are in transition is bound to be unfair or fail altogether unless conducted under the wider umbrella of social consensus among the various groups (in Libya's case, the tribes) to avoid further negative repercussions. Apartheid South Africa became democratic after its reconciliation process was achieved through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 1995 to seek justice and peace, not revenge and retribution. Rwanda passed through a similar process after the horrors of the 1994 genocide.

Why cannot the NTC and its interim government learn from such lessons? Or is there an invisible hand that prefers to see Libya unstable and Libyans killing each other as long as possible?

How many more innocent people like my friends have to be sacrificed before wisdom prevails in my country? Why are so many well-educated and professional Libyans being killed in mysterious circumstances or vanishing without a trace? How many professionals, invaluable human capital, have been forced to leave their country and how many more are packing to leave?

Those are the hard questions any responsible leadership must tackle before talk of empty elections or transitional justice.


Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and journalist who is now based in Europe