Human Rights Group Monitors Libya For Violations

David Greene talks to Fred Abrahams, a special adviser to Human Rights Watch, who recently returned from a mission to Libya. Abrahams says his organization is concerned about revenge attacks as the rebels take over the country.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

The rebels' progress in Tripoli raises a lot of questions, like what a rebel-held Libyan government might look like. There are also other questions emerging like how many prisoners have been released from Libyan prisons as the rebels progressed into Tripoli, and how many more are locked up, missing, or have been killed under Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Fred Abrahams is a special advisor for Human Rights Watch, and he recently led a fact-finding mission into Libya. Mr. Abrahams, welcome to the program.

Mr. FRED ABRAHAMS (Special Advisor, Human Rights Watch): Hi, good morning.

GREENE: As I understand, you visited two prisons in Tripoli, and you spent a lot of time talking to former prisoners who are now in Tunisia and the western mountains. What is the picture you're getting from people who were incarcerated under Gadhafi.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The picture is bleak. Since February when the conflict began, there have been thousands of arrests in government-held territory, and we don't know the full picture because the government has so far declined to inform the public on how many people have been arrested, where they're being held, what the charges they face. And even during our visit to Tripoli, they declined to answer our questions about who was being detained and where.

GREENE: And the Gadhafi regime was holding people in prisons, but also what's been described as more unofficial detention facilities. How common was that, and explain to us what that was.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Yes, our interviews with people who had been arrested and then released, they talked about being held in places such as factories, private farms of supporters of the regime. In part, I think this is because the prison system is just overwhelmed. They don't have the capacity to hold all of these prisoners. And, of course, this is a huge concern, because unofficial, unacknowledged detention facilities is where the worst abuse can happen. And we don't know all the places where people are being held.

GREENE: And there have been reports this week that on the other side of the conflict, the rebels have released prisoners from jails. Have you ascertained what's going on on that side?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We've been in the government-held areas, so don't have direct information about rebel releases. But there have been some in the past, people who they believe no longer pose a threat. But look, the key issue is the due process of the people still in detention, giving them lawyers, the right to defend themselves. And we've documented some problems on the rebels' side in that regard.

GREENE: One of the storylines in Libya over the years has been thousands of prisoners who went missing during the 40-plus years of Gadhafi's rule. What do you know about that, and what's happened to them?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We're all hoping that the end of this conflict allows us to shed light on this horrible story, four decades of a black-hole prisons, missing persons. We don't know. So many individuals, political opponents of the regime simply went missing. And until today, we just don't know where they are. Hopefully, we'll begin to have some answers.

GREENE: As the rebels made their push into Tripoli, their leaders were warning people, you know, on their side, not to take revenge, not to attack Gadhafi loyalists, basically that the world will be watching. This will not make us look good. Is that a real concern right now, at this point in the war?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: It's a definite concern. Look, the rebels have made the right statements. They've issued mass text messages, calling on their supporters not to engage in retaliatory violence. And they've said they're going to protect institutions. But 42 years of a dictatorship that's so violent, and now six months of bloody armed conflict, people are furious. They have legitimate grievances, and revenge is a real concern here in these initial days. We're calling on the transitional council to disavow itself of all that violence. This change was about turning Libya in a better direction, one with more justice and rule of law.

GREENE: Have you seen signs yet of revenge attacks in Benghazi, which is the rebel stronghold in the east, or any other parts of the country that have been already taken by the rebels?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Yes, we have. We've documented some revenge in the western mountains, and also in areas of Benghazi. This is arson, looting and some killings of people who are suspected of having supported the Gadhafi regime, what the rebels call the fifth column. And, you know, this is deeply troubling. It's not widespread and extensive, but enough to raise concerns, and, you know, a danger in Tripoli when this is done. Now, extremely bloody fighting in this capital today. So when it's all over, the threat of revenge looms large.

GREENE: We've been speaking with Fred Abrahams from Human Rights Watch. Mr. Abrahams, thank you for that update.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Thank you.

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