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Foreigners in Libya report being beaten, robbed

February 27, 2011


Reporting from Ras Ajdir, Tunisia —

Paying $200 for a government-sponsored taxi ride to the Tunisian border sounded like a bad deal. But Tunisian laborer Amr Soltan had no idea just how bad until he and his friends were driven instead to a prison, locked up for five days, robbed of their cellphones by police and beaten by guards.

“It’s a miracle that I am alive,” he said after arriving in his own country as one of the thousands who have been brutalized by Libyan security forces during the uprising against Moammar Kadafi‘s 41-year rule. “They accused us of being traitors because our people revolted against dictators.”

Unlike Arab leaders facing challenges in Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, Kadafi and son Seif Islam have responded to their enemies not with substantive concessions and appeals to calm but with blood-curdling rhetoric.

Many Arab leaders cringed when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, but Kadafi’s actions may strengthen resolve across the Arab world to unseat him. Libya’s membership in the Arab League has already been suspended, and many Arab countries have condemned the government.

“Kadafi is a dictator,” said Egyptian guest worker Mohammad Mahmoud, 23, who like many crossing the Tunisian border was robbed by Libyan security forces of a cellphone that had cost him a month’s wages. “But he’s different from Mubarak. He’s the worst of the worst.”

Human rights advocates have sounded the alarm about Libyan security forces’ assaults on migrant workers and waves of killings targeting protesters. In recent days, Libyans and foreigners in the country have learned to distinguish army soldiers in green berets from more ruthless members of paramilitary groups with red berets.

In Sabratha, several witnesses said, the red-bereted militiamen opened fire randomly on entrances to homes in districts where there was unrest, just to keep people from joining protests.

After bloody clashes Friday between protesters and security forces, Adel ben Halim, a 48-year-old merchant, toured Tripoli and found people shell-shocked by the violence that had engulfed them the night before.
“Very few people want to demonstrate. There were so many people killed yesterday,” Ben Halim said. “It was beyond a massacre.”

The indiscriminate shootings were reported to him by friends around the city, including one in an eastern neighborhood where nine people were killed in one street by gunmen who arrived in an ambulance.

“Eight mercenaries opened the back door and started shooting at the crowd. They used the ambulances for the element of surprise,” he said.

When the killing stopped, Ben Halim said, there was a scramble for the bodies. Government forces were rushing to take them away before they could be photographed and counted. “They are putting bodies on pickup trucks and sending them somewhere,” he said.

Family members were rushing to get the bodies so they could be buried. “They are hiding the bodies in mosques,” he said.

Allegations about the violence by security forces was difficult to verify amid a clampdown that has barred all but a few journalists under escort into the country. Libyan officials say Western and Arab news media have grossly exaggerated the extent of the unrest and presented a one-sided view of the security forces’ actions.

But accounts corroborated by independent sources and witnesses unconnected to one another paint a picture of security forces run amok, waging a campaign of retribution against their own people and foreign nationals whose countrymen may have inspired Libyans to revolt.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group that has dispatched a two-member team to the Tunisian border to collect witness accounts, reported Saturday that security forces had stormed into the homes of some migrant workers, accusing them of being responsible for the anti-government unrest sweeping across Libya.

But if Libyan authorities have terrified those in the country, they’ve also made getting out a harrowing struggle.

Many of those finding refuge across the border recounted tales of humiliation and abuse. Mohammad Ghani, a 60-year-old chef, tried to leave for Egypt via the airport. He fought to get onto a flight but was instead robbed of his life savings, nearly $9,000, which the authorities grabbed during a search.

Sobbing, he said, “They took everything” he had saved in 30 years of working in Libya.

Security forces charged fees just to enter the crowded airport to check on flight availability and cost. Many said security forces wielding batons beat them to keep them out of the terminal.

One man leaving a Tripoli suburb said he was stopped by police officers who demanded that he go with them. His beard, they told him, was too long, suggesting piety, and they scoffed. They took a pair of rusty scissors and laughed at him while they yanked at his beard to cut it.

“Thank God we have our health, our lives and all our luggage,” said Moustafa Said, who showed a passport photo of himself with a long beard, favored by Muslim fundamentalists. “They had weapons, so I had no choice.”

At checkpoints, Egyptians were accused of being traitors and accused of taking part in the protest movement now riling the country.

Once at the border crossing, many said they were closely searched by customs officials and told that they would have to pay a fee on any amount of money totaling more than $400.

“They took $200 from me,” said Bakid Abdul Qani, a 30-year-old Egyptian house painter.

“Their aim was to just take my dignity,” said Abdullah Mohammad, 24, a laborer who was shaken down for $50 as he crossed the border. “But they won’t get it. The people will defeat Kadafi.”

Fear is a powerful instrument of repression. Even in the safety of Tunisia, many fleeing Libya declined to talk. Those who did were sometimes interrupted by others who demanded they stop.

“Talk, talk, but we still have people in Zawiya,” one Egyptian told another who was speaking to a reporter. “If you talk too much, they will have the problems.”

Qani, the house painter, responded angrily. “Shut up! Shut up!” he said. “We have to say what is happening.”

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