In the aftermath of the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan regime, potential evidence of past human rights violations has surfaced. However, even as Libyans navigate the challenges of building a new government, they must also address how to identify and preserve evidence of past crimes.
Reports suggest that a recently discovered mass grave may contain 1,200 victims of a 1996 massacre in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. The slaughter was largely covered up by the Libyan government; in fact, many victims’ families were unaware of the deaths for years. The location of the bodies was never revealed.
In a recent interview with Human Rights Watch, Stefan Schmitt, Director of the International Forensic Program at Physicians for Human Rights, described the challenges posed by dealing with this potential evidence.
Schmitt noted how careful exhumations of human remains are essential for any later identification efforts, as well as forensic findings on the cause and manner of death. Hasty attempts to remove bodies, either by victims’ families or Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) tend to disarticulate and commingle remains. Therefore, PHR has called for an end to all exhumations and recommends that the grave site be guarded until it can be properly exhumed and the remains examined by forensic specialists. For those families seeking answers, the NTC must communicate their plans for a proper investigation and commitment to justice.
Additionally, numerous mass graves that are the result of killings in the last days of the Gaddafi regime have been discovered in the past few weeks. Along with the infamous prison site at Abu Salim, they may provide important forensic evidence of what actually occurred during Qaddafi’s reign—if the sites are properly examined by experts.
While Libya entered the international spotlight in the last six months as revolutionary forces toppled the oppressive regime of Muammar Qadaffi, the country has a long history of human rights violations. In 2006, PHR was instrumental in securing the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been sentenced to death for allegedly infecting Libyan children with AIDS. In 2008, PHR fought for the release of Fathi al-Jahmi, a Libyan political prisoner who died as a result of his treatment in custody in 2009. This past September, PHR sent a team of experts to Libya where they discovered evidence of widespread human rights violations committed during the recent conflict. These human rights violations were documented in the recent report, Witness to War Crimes (pdf).