| BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 26
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 26 The face of a young man
looks out from billboards across Benghazi. "A mother's cry. If
my son is guilty, bring him to justice. If he is innocent, let
him go," says the caption, which ends with a phone number.
Speaking at the family home, the mother, Ansaf Ibrahim,
recounts how dozens of militia fighters from the February 17
Brigade stormed in on Aug. 30 and seized her husband Ali Muftag
al-Warfalli and their son Firas, 21, a dentistry student.
The brigade, named for the start date of the revolution that
toppled Muammar Gaddafi, is one of the largest and most heavily
armed militias prowling Libya a year after the civil war ended.
Most operate with the permission of the weak central government.
They answer to their own leaders and maintain their own jails.
Such arrests, described by many Libyans as kidnappings, are
fuelling a backlash, which has intensified in the days since the
killing of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other
Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate.
Ansaf Ibrahim says a few people have called in response to
the billboards but so far they have not been able to help,
offering only sympathy. "One person called to say his own mother
fell sick with grief when she saw the billboards."
The militia say their powers to arrest and detain people are
vital to protect a country where the police and security forces
are too weak to maintain order.
February 17 says it has turned the two al-Warfalli prisoners
over to the military police. A member of the brigade's High
Security Committee said Ali Muftag, the father, was held on
suspicion of having ties to Gaddafi loyalists in Egypt and Firas
on suspicion of links to militants who set off bombs in Tripoli.
Ansaf Ibrahim says both men are innocent.
She believes her son was taken in just because he was at
home when the militia arrived to arrest her husband, who was a
student in Britain in the 1980s when pro-Gaddafi students inside
the Libyan embassy were blamed for shooting a policewoman.
"Whatever they think the father has done, that doesn't mean
my son has done something too. If you want the father, you do
not have to take the son in this horrible, frightening and
savage way," she said.
PULLED OFF STREET AFTER SPEAKING OUT
Activists who speak out against the detentions say they
frequently become targets too.
Journalist Sherifa al-Senoussi al-Fsay, who has criticised
militia abductions in television broadcasts, was pulled off the
street in May after leaving the home of a detainee's family. A
car pulled up and armed men jumped out.
"They took my bag and searched it. They saw my journalist
ID. I was yelling, saying I was a journalist," she recalled.
"I was trying to make them stop. One of them grabbed my
veil. They tried to haul me away. I wriggled free and ran to a
building. I tried to ask for help but one of the men grabbed me
and dragged me across the ground. They took me to the car, threw
me inside and beat me."
She says she was driven to a deserted spot and bundled into
another car with another group of armed men, who also hit her.
Finally, she was delivered to a police station in central
Benghazi. Activists demonstrated outside to demand her release
and, after two days, a sympathetic militia leader sent armed men
into the police station to free her.
Four months later, al-Fsay still does not dare say which of
the hundreds of armed groups she blames for having captured her,
fearful they will retaliate.
The government says it is taking steps to rein in the
militia. Those that operate without government permission are
being dissolved, while those that have government permission are
being incorporated into the regular army's chain of command.
The government said on Monday it was replacing the civilian
leaders of February 17 and another powerful Benghazi militia
that also operates its own jail, Rafalla al-Sahati. The leaders
of the two militias, among the most powerful men in the country,
are to be replaced with uniformed army colonels, putting their
forces fully under the army chain of command.
The billboard pictures of Firas al-Warfalli stared down as
thousands of Libyans demonstrated over the weekend against
militias on a march known as "Rescue Benghazi Day".
The protesters seized bases of the Islamist militia Ansar
al-Sharia, which did not have government permission and which
Washington suspects of having had some kind of connection to the
attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The demonstrators then marched on the heavily fortified
compound of Rafallah al-Sahati, one of the biggest militias that
operate with government approval. The protesters looted the
compound and freed prisoners. The authorities backed the militia
the following morning and its base is again occupied.
At the al-Warfalli house, Firas's 10-year-old brother comes
into the room where his mother is meeting journalists, poses for
a snapshot and scampers out. "My little son has a new game he
plays," his mother says, imitating a small boy pretending to
fire a machine gun. "He says: 'I'm going to kill February 17 and
get my father back for us.'"