KHOMS, Libya (Reuters) - Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi deployed special squads which held suspected opponents in shipping containers, tortured them for information about insurgent networks and disposed of their bodies in unmarked graves in a campaign to smash the revolt against his rule.
Evidence gathered by Reuters in the provincial town of Khoms shows an organized system of repression with methods including delivering electric shocks to suspects’ genitals, keeping them for weeks in baking heat with only a few sips of water a day, and whipping them with an electrical cable while their hands were bound with plastic ties.
It was all part of a deliberate strategy, said Nabil Al-Menshaz, an official in the rebel council which took over Khoms after Gaddafi’s rule there collapsed last month. “They wanted to frighten the people, so if anyone was thinking of going over to the rebels, they would change their minds,” he said.
The brutality of Gaddafi’s forces in the capital, Tripoli, in the final, chaotic days before rebels overran the city has been well documented. Dozens of bodies were left lying in the streets, and witnesses described prisoners being massacred before their jailers fled. Thousands more were killed in battles in cities like Misrata and Zawiyah.
But accounts from Khoms paint a different, and in some ways even more sinister picture. Months before the rebel victory, and out of sight of the outside world, Gaddafi was operating a system of torture - separate from the army and police - that was so well-organized the units has their own command structures and bureaucracy.
On a wall at a construction site just outside Khoms that one of the units used for detaining suspects, pro-Gaddafi forces had scrawled in red crayon the name of their unit: “Soqur Al-Fatah” - or “Hawks of Al-Fatah,” a reference to the 1969 Al-Fatah Revolution that brought Gaddafi to power. Underneath that, in the same handwriting, someone had written the words: “Death Group.”
Apart from the ancient Roman ruins on its Mediterranean shore, Khoms, 120 km (75 miles) east of Tripoli, is a typical provincial town. The campaign of repression carried out there is likely to have been repeated in other Libyan towns that, until Gaddafi’s rule collapsed late last month, were under the control of his forces.
“It would be consistent with what we are hearing about the repression that was going on, and the general effort to terrorize people,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The repression began in early summer, soon after secret insurgent cells in Khoms began harassing pro-Gaddafi security forces.
“We made small explosive devices which we threw at the cars of Gaddafi forces,” said Al-Menshaz. “We made little wire spikes to burst car tires . We attacked the houses of people who were with Gaddafi with small, home-made bombs.”
The backlash followed quickly.
Mohammed Ahmed Ali, a 54-year-old teacher of Arabic, said he was arrested on May 20 for taking part in an anti-Gaddafi protest. He was brought to a construction site near Khoms. Vacated by the multinational firm that had been building housing units there, it had been taken over by the “Hawks of Al-Fatah” unit.
A sign left over from the construction work greets people arriving at the site with the words: “Safety First.”
Here, Ahmed Ali was put inside a 40-foot long shipping container.
Nine other detainees were in his container, and there were more in another next to it; he thought about 10 people. Every few days, his guards took him out and brought him to a one-storey dormitory block that previously housed the construction workers.
Now back at the site to recount his experience, he showed the room where pro-Gaddafi soldiers interrogated him, trying to force him to confess to organizing the protest in which he had taken part. He lifted up his shirt to reveal deep welts criss-crossing his back, where he said he was hit with clubs and electrical flex.
In another room, with a metal scaffolding pole in it, he showed how, his hands tied around his knees, he was suspended from the pole and beaten again.
“They grabbed me by my beard and hit me. Then they hit me with rifle butts and they used electricity on me .. They hit me with electricity in personal areas,” he said. “Then they took my clothes away and left me in my underwear from 1:30 at night until six in the morning. So for about five hours they were beating me and using electricity.”
The construction site is littered with abandoned green military fatigues and plastic ties used to bind the prisoners’ hands.
Scattered around the building where the torture took place were invoices for fuel received by the unit, and printed forms which were filled out to record what weapons and ammunition had been allocated to unit members.
The forms were printed with the words: “”Temporary General Committee for Defence, Suqur Al-Fatah Security.” At the bottom, the documents carried the name of the unit commander, Ali Ayad Beshti.
The official in the new local council, Al-Menshaz, said he believed Beshti had fled to Bani Walid, a town south of Khoms that is still under the control of Gaddafi supporters. “We think they all left in that direction,” he said.
Outside the local radio station in the center of Khoms, a local man shows an amateur video on his mobile telephone that backs up Ahmed Ali’s account of torture.
The man said the footage was found on the cellphone of a pro-Gaddafi soldier arrested in the area after the rebels took over control of the town on August 21.
It showed the inside of a shipping container, at a different site from the one where Ali Ahmed was held. Six men in civilian clothes sat or lay on the floor. They were blindfolded and their hands and feet bound with plastic ties.
In the video, a man in green military fatigues goes up to one of the prisoners, who has his back against the side wall of the container, and kicks him in the chest.
The camera then switches to another prisoner, who is being whipped with a length of electrical cable. At the back of the container, someone in fatigues is standing on a prisoner’s back, making the man cry out in pain.
Officials in the new local government say they do not know what happened to the detainees in the video. They said they believed they died, and were trying to find where they are buried.
In a room at the end of a long corridor at the main Khoms hospital is further evidence of the campaign of repression. Fifteen bodies lie on the floor, wrapped in canvas shrouds with a number pinned to each of them. There is no mortuary at the hospital, and the room has just an air conditioner.
The smell of rotting flesh hangs in the air. To approach the bodies, local fighters guarding the hospital each put on three surgical masks, one on top of the other, and douse them in alcohol to counteract the stench.
A fighter steps into the room and pulls the canvas away from some of the bodies. They are wearing civilian clothes. One of them has his hands bound together with a belt. The head of one body is missing.
The bodies were brought to the hospital on Sunday night after they were dug up on the edge of the Sidi Muftah cemetery, just outside Khoms.
The new local authorities knew that there was a burial site somewhere because, after Gaddafi’s forces fled Khoms, residents had been coming forward to report that members of their families had disappeared.
When a resident said he had seen lots of vehicles coming to the cemetery at night a few weeks earlier, they brought in a mechanical digger. They found the bodies buried head-to-toe, in two lines of trenches by the wall of the cemetery.
At the makeshift mortuary, a Bulgarian woman who works at the hospital looked on as a group of men, masks over their faces, filed into the room to see if they could find their missing relatives among the bodies. They walked out again shaking their heads, saying the bodies were too decayed to identify them.
“It’s genocide what Gaddafi was doing here,” said the woman. “Nobody would do what Gaddafi did.”
No one yet knows how the people in the mortuary ended up in their unmarked grave. They were not from the group who were kept in the shipping containers at the construction site because they were still clothed - Ahmed Ali said everyone who was with him stripped off because of the heat.
But he said he had an idea of how they might have died. Everyone except him and another man died in the two containers where they were kept prisoner.
Giving a tour of the containers, he pointed out the bullet holes where the Gaddafi soldiers had fired at the metal walls to create air holes.
He showed how he and his fellow detainees would stand with their mouths next to the holes to try to get fresh air. The guards would throw in a single 1.5 liter bottle of mineral water each day for all 10 people in his container to drink. He said they shared it out by pouring a few drops into the bottle cap.
On the final day of his detention, June 6, he and the other people in the container with him were starting to fade in the heat.
“The young men were dying from a lack of water and I could not do anything. The picture of these containers will never leave my mind. One of them said to me: ‘If I die bury me by the sea so I can be cold’.”
Toward the end of that day, the guards opened the doors of the two containers. They took out Ahmed Ali, and the one other survivor. They allowed them to wash, dressed them in military fatigues and soon after let them go free.
He said they took the bodies out of the containers, then poured petrol inside and set light to it to get rid of any evidence that people were held there.
Later, a man contacted the new authorities and confessed to having helped bury the bodies at a place called Rbane, south of Khoms. Local rebel fighters said on Monday they had found the burial site and were starting to recover the bodies.
At the end of his tour of the site where he had been held, Ahmed Ali stood at the door of the container. Up to that point he had betrayed no emotion, but his eyes filled with tears when he thought about the people who did not come out alive.
“God have mercy on our martyrs,” he said. “They died for no reason other than saying: ‘There is no god but God’ and ‘We want freedom.’
“They did not want money or power. They just wanted freedom.”
Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar; editing by Philippa Fletcher