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Libya's rebels accused of illegal arrests and revenge killings

Tripoli prisons alleged to have cases of abuse and discrimination.

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A Libyan rebel looks down from a bridge near the center of Tripoli on Aug. 21, 2011. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya’s National Transitional Council, the country's new governing authority, must bring rebel forces under its control and stop what appears to be arbitrary arrests and revenge killings, Amnesty International said today.

While the war crimes committed by Muammar Gaddafi and his forces are comparatively well known, Amnesty International said in a report that the rebels had also committed widespread abuses since the revolution began in February, including the execution of dozens of pro-Gaddafi prisoners. Hundreds of black migrant workers, assumed to be mercenaries, have also been detained and are being held illegally, the rights group said.

“The new authorities must make a complete break with the abuses of the past four decades and set new standards by putting human rights at the center of their agenda,” said Claudio Cordone, a senior director at Amnesty International.

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More than half the prisoners detained in Tripoli and Zawiya are believed to be foreign nationals. Most are believed to be migrant workers and not fighters. Migrant families have also been the target of harassment and discrimination, forcing many to leave their homes.

The problem is apparent In Tripoli’s Al Jadaida prison, where both Libyan and foreign nationals pleaded their innocence through the bars of overcrowded, sweltering cells on one recent day. More than half of the 760 detainees at Al Jadaida are black migrants.

“I have lived here with my Libyan wife for 23 years,” said Faisal Mohammed from a dark dreary cell that held 29 Sudanese men. “The new government arrested me as I walked in the street with my wife two weeks ago. I have not been allowed any contact with my family since.”

Although conditions under which the Libyan war prisoners were kept appeared similar to those of the foreign nationals, the Libyan prisoners who spoke to GlobalPost had all been allowed contact with their families. The foreigners, meanwhile, had not been permitted any contact with their family, lawyers or their Libyan employers, whose testimony could clear their names.

James Foley with the Libyan rebels:

“The treatment is the same, the environment is the same, but I don’t think the judgment will be the same,” said Victor Baboa, a prisoner from Liberia, who said he has worked in Libya for 5 years as an engineer. “We have no lawyers, no case, no communication. How can we defend ourselves?”

Other prisoners said they believed racism influenced their treatment.

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“If you are Libyan, you can get anything when you want it — food, water, cigarettes,” said one detainee as he rolled a half-filled water bottle to thirsty prisoners in the opposite cell. “But for us, they give us the minimum.”

Moments later a guard distributed juice and biscuits to cells containing Libyan inmates, bypassing the cells of sub-Saharan prisoners.

Samira Bouslama, an Amnesty International researcher based in Tripoli, said although racism against black migrants has long been evident in Libya, Gaddafi’s claim that “all African’s will defend me,” as well as exaggerated reports that large numbers of sub-Saharan mercenaries had joined his forces, has fueled hatred and xenophobia.

“We expect these arbitrary arrests of black Africans will continue for some time because there is no system in place and everyone has a gun,” Bouslama said, adding that at this time there is only one official detention center in the capital and that Amnesty International does not have a clear idea of how many unofficial centers are under operation.

Bouslama said black female detainees had reported verbal abuse, molestation while being searched, and unsanitary living conditions.

For the men in detention, Bouslama said, there appears to be no discrimination between the prisoners, but many, both Libyan and foreign, had been beaten and in some cases tortured during their initial arrest.

In the early stages of the revolution, GlobalPost received reports of mistreatment of mercenaries. Many rebel fighters openly admitted that mercenary prisoners were not shown the same mercy as native Libyan captives. One video viewed by GlobalPost, dating from March, showed about 10 black prisoners in a cramped concrete cell with clear signs they