Meet Salah: Keeping hope for redress in the absence of a State, amid a civil war

Dec.5th, Tripoli (Libya) ­- “Torture is certainlypractised in all societies, but the problem in Libya is the frequency of itsoccurrence,” explains Salah Abu Khazam, who founded and heads the LibyanNetwork for Legal Aid. “That’s because the Government is only concerned withits own security.”

Salah doesn’t have it easy. He works in a country with two governments,non-existent police force, a defunct judicial system and no rule of law, wherehuman rights defenders like him, prime targets of scores of armed groups,regularly get kidnapped or killed. Two volunteer human rights lawyers workingfor his organization were directly threatened, and chances are he himself is onthe black list for promoting democratic ideals, gender equality, or any valueopposed to those upheld by Islamist armed groups. Yet, he still gets up everymorning thinking that Libya is going to become a better place.

“The day will come when the culprits will be held accountable for their crimesand victims will receive reparation,” he says.

While most of his peers are in exile, Salah, 31, holds onto his country.He is proud to say he has rescued two people from death under torture, and athird one from a death sentence for having stolen a military vehicle. He isconvinced no one can enjoy any wellbeing or lead a proper life while suchviolations are tolerated by the social and political system, until theuniversal values of human rights are enforced in Libya. One has to say, though,that the light at the end of the tunnel still seems very far at this stage.

After the 2011 attacks and uprising that led to the downfall of theQadhafi regime after 24 years of dictatorship, many Libyan intellectuals andlawyers such as Salah engaged in the defence of human rights. With the backingof international NGOs including OMCT, Amnesty International, and the Red Crossa number of local networks and civil society organizations sprung up to betterprotect citizens from routine human rights violations.

Yetthis hopeful period of building up democratic institutions and restoring civilrights was short-lived as another wave of widespread violence overtook thecountry, home to the world’s 10th-largest oil-reserves, as numerousbelligerents fuelled political, racial, ethnic, religious and interregionalconflicts.

The country has been divided since June 2014, when a number of factionsrefused to accept the legislative election results and the establishment of anew Parliament, leaving Libya with two Governments: one recognized by theinternational community based in al-Bayda, and another loyal to the formerGeneral National Congress based in Tripoli. To make things worse, many regionshave ties to Islamist groups while other areas are self-governing, and rivalarmed groups have spread across the territory, creating additional lines offracture.

The result was complete chaos, with a collapse of state institutions anddeteriorating economic, social and health conditions, which forced the EuropeanUnion and United Nations Support Mission to Libya to leave the country. Theescalation of violence since in August 2014 - when Islamist militias took overTripoli and its civilian airport - was so ferocious that the UN SecurityCouncil called for the application of sanctions against violators ofhumanitarian and human rights law. The violence also led to at least 400,000internally displaced Libyans and to hundreds of thousands migrant workersfleeing the country.

Itis in this improbable context that Salah’s organization, founded in 2014 withOMCT’s help, has documented 90 torture cases, forced disappearances, arbitrarydetentions and abuses. It has filed 15 complaints with local courts fortorture, detention and extra-judiciary executions. It is working with otherpartners on how to use international mechanisms to seek redress for victims oftorture in the face of an incompetent of national judicial system.

“Society must free itself from passivity and dependence and participatecollectively to demand the respect of its rights,” explains Salah.

- By Lori Brumat in Geneva

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