Looking At Wounded, Imprisoned Rebels In Libya

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Host Melissa Block talks to Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef about human rights issues going on in Libya. Morayef just left the city of Benghazi yesterday — where she was reporting on the crisis there.


As the remaining Gadhafi forces dig in, there are many questions about what has happened to rebels who've been wounded or imprisoned. Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch is just back from eastern Libya and she joins me by Skype from Cairo. Welcome back to the program, Heba.

Ms. HEBA MORAYEF (Human Rights Watch): Thank you.

BLOCK: You were in Benghazi for several days. That city has been controlled by the opposition for about a week now. Were you able to get any count, a realistic count of the dead or injured in the fight for that city?

Ms. MORAYEF: Well, yes, that was one of the primary things we were looking into. So I went around different hospitals and met hospital directors and doctors who were on duty. And so I was able to confirm that there were 237 people killed in Benghazi alone over the days of violence.

The vast majority of these deaths were caused by live gunfire, many cases, and in the majority of cases, sniper shots. There were also eight cases where people were burnt and they were handcuffed and burnt in one of the detention centers. Witnesses were saying that these were military officers who had refused to fight. But this isn't something we were able to independently verify.

BLOCK: Have you been able to extrapolate the numbers out for all of Libya, to figure out how many casualties there may have been so far in this conflict?

Ms. MORAYEF: It's been very difficult. We were gathering information from the very beginning. And the big challenge right now is getting information out of Tripoli because we believe there have been a number of deaths, especially in the past five days, but we've been unable to get access to hospital doctors who are under a lot of pressure. And people in general in Tripoli feel that they're under very close surveillance.

So, my overall estimate for the death toll stands at 417 right now. But we believe the actual death toll will be much higher once the actual numbers from Tripoli become available.

BLOCK: Were you hearing in your time in eastern Libya about people in the opposition movement who have disappeared, who may have been taken in by the Gadhafi forces and no one knows where they are?

Ms. MORAYEF: Yes. And this is one of our very big concerns about the situation right now. Disappearance is quite common in Libya. In fact, when political opponents or activists are arrested by the internal security agency, they are systematically disappeared and they may then reemerge after six months or even a year's detention, only to reveal that they were in internal security prisons.

So what we're seeing from very early on, former political prisoners, Facebook activists as they're called in Libya - I mean, people who were sort of actively calling for the February 17th demo. People who gave interviews to the media in the first days, like journalist Atef al-Atrash, who were then arrested, remain disappeared up until this time.

BLOCK: Heba, what can you tell us about the people who've been detained by the opposition? In other words, Gadhafi supporters who are now in prison, how are they being treated?

Ms. MORAYEF: I was not personally able to investigate the detention of any Gadhafi supporters in Benghazi. I do know that some of the more senior security officials who've either, you know, announced that they will not fight against the anti-Gadhafi groups in Benghazi, are now under house arrest. I know that in other cities, people who fought with Gadhafi, who - people who, you know, crowds believed were mercenaries were then handed over to the central interim governing councils.

What has been reassuring for us is that in Benghazi, especially, the governing council is very keen to stress that there needs to be respect for the rule of law in order to protect the legitimacy of their revolution. This is the way that they put it. They see Gadhafi's era as one of lawlessness and many of the lawyers and academics who are on that council are very keen to protect this as a white revolution is how they put it to me, and to make sure that there is a proper process for dealing with anyone who's captured.

BLOCK: Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, based in Cairo. She's just back from a fact-finding trip to eastern Libya. Heba Morayef, thanks very much.

Ms. MORAYEF: You're welcome.

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