Prison guard in a prison in Libya

A prison guard stands near prisoners who are suspected of being fighters for Muammar Gaddafi at a post office, where they are being detained, in Joumaa market district in Tripoli August 30, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Wael Abdelgawad |

One of the things the people fought for in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was to end torture and the government culture of impunity. The newly liberated people in these nations must not, cannot, continue the abuses that they fought so hard to overturn.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutions are incomplete. Figures from the old regimes remain in power, and the cultures of government repression and police torture have not changed.

Libya may be a different story. The Libyan revolution was a hard and bitter fight compared to Tunisia and Egypt; but the upside of this may be that all regime figures have been swept away. Libya has an opportunity to build something new from the ground up.

One area in need of immediate attention is the justice system.

In new liberated Libya, more than 7,000 prisoners are being held in dozens of makeshift prisons. The men are packed into tiny, dingy cells where they remain without charges or trial, according to human rights groups and recent detainees. Some have been subjected to torture, according to reports.

I’m not saying that I don’t understand where this comes from. Libya is in a state of semi-chaos right now. The various prisons are being run by militias who fought for liberation. The militias are undisciplined and unregulated, while the prisoners they are guarding are former Gaddafi soldiers and mercenaries, many of whom committed atrocities. The militias’ anger is still fresh, and their desire for vengeance must run deep.

”Some of these [pro-Gaddafi] people raped, some killed. There was vandalism. They tortured us; they killed kids,” said Abdel Gader Abu Shaallah, who oversees two other makeshift prisons in Misrata.

But the liberators are no longer rebels. Libya is free, and the government must act quickly to bring all institutions under state control, and to make sure that abuses are stopped. No matter what crimes the prisoners are accused of, if torture is allowed to take place, then the liberators become little better than the government they fought so hard to replace.

Amnesty International issued a report in early October saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.

Fortunately, the reports of torture seem to be isolated rather than systematic; and the resolve to end the abuses seems to be there. ”We joined the revolution to end such mistreatment, not to see it continue in any form,” Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told Human Rights Watch.

Now what remains is to implement this ideal.

I call upon the Libyan government to act decisively to make their justice system fair and transparent; to clearly and strongly prohibit torture within their jails and prisons; and to punish (or at least remove from authority) anyone guilty of committing these abuses.