Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday urged Libya's United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to investigate the fate of hundreds of people missing from a key town near the capital, Tripoli. Dozens of mass graves were found there after the withdrawal of a widely feared militia loyal to putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar last summer.
In a statement, HRW quoted Libyan officials as saying that at least 338 residents of the town of Tarhuna were reported missing. The majority of them disappeared during a 14-month military campaign to capture the capital led by forces loyal to eastern-based Haftar, according to the report.
The U.N. had described the discovery of mass graves around Tarhuna as "horror" in June last year.
That discovery came the day after the withdrawal of forces loyal to Haftar, who used Tarhuna as the main staging point for their attempt to seize the capital in a military offensive launched in April 2019.
"Residents reported that the militia often abducted, detained, tortured, killed and disappeared people who opposed them or who were suspected of doing so," added the rights watchdog.
It called on the GNA to "investigate what happened to the missing residents," recalling that since the first macabre discovery, 120 bodies have been exhumed from 27 mass graves, including women and children.
The rights group also appealed to foreign governments and the U.N. to "provide forensics experts and conduct DNA testing to help with the GNA's gravesite investigations."
“Families in Tarhuna whose loved ones went missing face a difficult time moving forward with their lives,” said Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher. “The authorities should act on the grim discovery of mass graves by taking proper steps to identify the bodies and bringing those responsible for abuses to justice.”
Salah said that senior commanders among Haftar's forces “could be criminally liable for abuses committed by al-Kaniyat militia in Tarhuna for which they had command responsibility.”
In November 2020, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) chief prosecutor reported that Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli involved a pattern of violence and the use of mines by retreating forces that harmed civilians, which is a war crime when used indiscriminately.
Libyan authorities told HRW that they have not yet identified the bodies. They said the main reason behind the delay was the lack of funds and that some staff needed additional training.
HRW explained that the al-Kaniyat militia, a family endeavor, controlled every aspect of life in Tarhuna from 2015 until June 2020, when it was liberated by GNA forces.
The city of Tarhuna, about 93 kilometers (57 miles) southeast of Tripoli and a gateway to Libya’s center and east, had for years been controlled by the Kaniyat militia run by the local al-Kani family, which fought alongside Haftar’s eastern-based illegitimate forces. It adopted the name 9th Brigade when the militia joined forces with Haftar.
Mohammed Khalifa al-Kani, widely seen as the leader, was joined by four of his brothers – Abdelkhaleq, Muammar (Omar), Abdulrahim and Muhsen, who died in September 2019, HRW stated.
Family members of the missing told HRW that their relatives were not fighters but were targeted because they opposed al-Kaniyat or the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, whose rule was supported by the al-Kani family.
In an interview with HRW, one of the province’s residents, three of whose relatives were abducted by the militia, said: “When they capture and kill someone, they also make sure to kill the rest of (the men in) his family so that they don’t retaliate. After they kill people, they seize their money and property.”
Another resident whose relative Abu Baker Amer Abunaama was ambushed on Nov. 14, 2019, said: “Al-Kanis are ruthless and worked to eliminate anyone that could stand in their way. For them, if you’re not with them, then you’re against them.”
Kamal al-Siwi, head of the Tripoli government's Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons, told HRW that his agency has exhumed 120 bodies, including women and children, in and around Tarhuna. Some of the bodies were found handcuffed and most were in an “advanced state of decay,” which made it hard for relatives to identify them, said al-Siwi in the HRW report.
Only three exhumed bodies have been identified so far and returned to their families for burial, added al-Siwi.
In November, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned al-Kaniyat and its leader Mohamed al-Kani after finding it responsible for killing civilians whose bodies were discovered in numerous mass graves, as well as torture, forced disappearances and displacement of civilians.
The sanctions sought to freeze any property of those named under U.S. jurisdiction and to block their access to the world's trade and banking systems.