Two months after the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the rattle of celebratory machine gunfire has waned in Libya — and so, too, has the euphoria of the country’s newfound freedom.
As revolutionary forces now jockey for power in the new Libya and spurn calls for handing over their weapons, interim authorities face the daunting task of establishing the rule of law.
The country’s most infamous war criminal may be dead, but untold numbers of alleged criminals from both sides of the conflict still roam free. One whom Libyan authorities should detain and hold accountable is Lt. Col. Mansour, who ordered his troops to kill 153 men in late August.
With a team of forensic experts from Physicians for Human Rights, I investigated this massacre by Gaddafi’s 32nd Brigade soldiers. We interviewed four eyewitness survivors as well as one of the alleged perpetrators, conducted medical evaluations of surviving detainees, and assessed the crime scene using forensic methods.
In our report, “32nd Brigade Massacre: Evidence of war crimes and the need to ensure justice and accountability in Libya,” we provide the first comprehensive forensic account of the massacre and produce evidence of torture, rape, and summary executions of these detainees. The massacre took place in Tripoli at a makeshift prison located behind the barracks of the 32nd Brigade — Libya’s notorious special forces headed by Gaddafi’s youngest son, Khamis.
I spoke with one young survivor, “Mohammad,” whom soldiers had detained and tortured there. He told of the night when two soldiers entered the hangar where he and some 150 other detainees were held and began firing automatic weapons. He described how he saw grenades land inside the hangar after the soldiers had thrown them through openings high above the main door. Fortunately, during the chaos, he managed to flee and jump over the wall of the compound.
I also interviewed a mid-level officer with the 32nd Brigade who took part in the massacre that night. “Laskhar” was in the room and heard Lt. Col. Mansour order the execution of all the detainees at the compound. He was then told to go to the compound and ensure there were no survivors. While searching for detainees who had survived the initial attacks, Laskhar inspected each of the wounded men. Those still alive, he shot point blank. Laskhar admitted to executing 12 detainees with his 9-millimeter pistol that night.
The next morning Laskhar’s commander brought an excavator to the compound to dig a mass grave for the executed detainees, but the heavy equipment broke down, hindering their plans to bury the bodies en masse. Two days later Lt. Col. Mansour ordered that they collect all corpses inside the hangar and burn them. Laskhar and other soldiers followed his orders, collected automobile tires, and put them inside the hangar with the bodies. The soldiers then poured diesel fuel over the bodies and tires and set the hangar aflame.
Sadly, this story is only one of many untold atrocities that were committed during the conflict. The new Libyan government must thoroughly investigate this massacre and other alleged war crimes. Proper investigations, which includes forensic collection and documentation of evidence, serve as a critical first step toward providing justice.
The death of Gaddafi meant he was never held accountable for numbers of egregious abuses during four decades of rule. Other alleged war criminals from all sides of the recent conflict remain at large, however, and must be brought to justice. Holding these individuals accountable is the most effective way to end impunity and establish the rule of law.