Libya is plagued by numerous armed militias often a law unto themselves. A recent raid last weekend (June 9) on a militia base in Benghazi shows, that as many have claimed, some have their own prisons.
After protesters stormed a Libya Shield militia base in Benghazi a clash killed 31 people. The militia finally abandoned the base after commandos from the Al Saiqa group intervened.
In the toilet area of the base, toilet cubicles had been turned into a makeshift prison with metal grilles and doors welded on. On the wall of one cubicle was a line of numbers ending in 147. Police, who now occupy the base, have no idea what happened to the inmates. Authorities claim to have no knowledge that the prison even existed.
The death toll in the clash has helped to galvanize the government into action. The ineffective army chief of staff Yousef al-Mangoush resigned and has been replaced by Salem al-Gnaidy. The government ordered security forces to take over four Islamist militia bases in Benghazi but citizens doubt that the groups will disband.
At a press conference Gnaidy displayed another secret of the base– a homemade bomb consisting of an anti-tank mine with nails, bolts and a mobile phone taped to it. There have been several bomb attacks of late in Benghazi. On June 12, Gnaidy told the Tripoli Post that militia members have to lay down their arms or join the regular army by the end of the year. Gnaidy set out the plan for disarmament: "We'll set a date for handing in weapons in coordination with the government and General National Congress (GNC),We welcome all factions that want to join the army, and we're ready to pay bonuses or rewards to each brigade that hands in their weapons and sends its members to join the army."While Gnaidy called for militias to disarm, the Libyan congress is divided and its security forces not strong enough to carry out the disarmament by force,
At the funeral of a victim of the clash, a Libyan Thunderbolt brigade lieutenant said:"The Libya Shield don't follow orders, we don't even know whose orders they follow," His soldiers shouted that Qatar was backing the Islamists a common complaint in Benghazi. Last month in the city protesters burned the Qatar flag and an effigy of the emir. Qatar issued a statement denying involvement in Libyan politics.
Fathi Baja, a professor and civil rights activist soon to become Libyan ambassador to Canada said: "You cannot convince me these people [Islamists] want a civil state, They want to maintain a military arm. They want to be like the Iranian republican guard or the national guard in Saudi Arabia."
Unlike Islamists in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists did relatively poorly in elections for Congress. However, they were very active in the revolution and their militia groups exert power outside the government, often forcing the government to implement their agenda such as the political isolation law that bans former Gadaffi officials from senior posts in the government.
Many foreigners have left Benghazi after attacks on the British consulate and a deadly attack on the US embassy that killed the US ambassador. Even in the capital, a bomb wrecked the French embassy and more recently Italian diplomats found that their car was booby-trapped.
Many liberals are cheering the attempted crackdown on militias. Benghazi residents are heartened by seeing police cars now on the streets. For some time they have been absent, as security had been farmed out to militia groups. Many residents are not convinced that the situation will continue to improve.
The commandos from al-Saiga who led the attack that caused the Libyan Shield militia to leave the base was a group that was set up under the Gadaffi regime although they eventually defected during the revolution. An Islamist at the funeral of an Islamist killed in the clash, said that al-Saiga is staging a military coup. The Islamists were severely repressed under Gadaffi and want to wipe out any remnants of the old regime who are part of the new government.
Militias who have left their bases still have their arms and there are still other bases in the Benghazi area. Another prominent militia, Ansar al-Sharia was driven out of its base after being involved in the torching of a Coptic Church and also the attack on the US embassy. However, other militias continue to operate openly still. The new rulers hardly seem to be concerned about democratic rights. The congress has now stopped live coverage of its sessions on the grounds that Libyans are not ready for full democracy.