THE SECRETIVE PRISONS THAT KEEP MIGRANTS OUT OF EUROPE - Part 3
Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the E.U. has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias
On May 29, 2021, there was a knock at my hotel room door. I had come to Libya days earlier to report on the story of a young farmer from Guinea Bissau who had been captured by Libyan authorities as he tried to make his way to Europe. His farm back home was failing, and he needed to risk the dangers of a journey to Europe in the hopes of finding work and saving his family.
The migrant, 28-year-old Aliou Cande, had been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard last February, and held at one of Libya’s most menacing migrant jails, a facility in the capital city of Tripoli known as Al Mabani.
Not many reporters have been working in Libya in recent years, and for good reason. The country remains, after years of civil war, a failed state, with competing governments, violent militias, and little accountability to, or for, anyone.
Libya has also in recent years been an effective, if brutal partner in Europe’s efforts to halt the flow of African migrants to its shores. Europe has financed the Libyan Coast Guard’s work to capture migrants on the Mediterranean. And Europe has stood by as those captured migrants by the tens of thousands have been returned to horrific conditions inside the dozen or more migrant jails Libyan has created as part of its efforts on Europe’s behalf.
Al Mabani in 2021 emerged as one of the most outrageous of those jails -- a monstrously overcrowded place of violence, neglect and a range of crimes from extortion to forced labor. Once in Libya, I and three colleagues had spent a productive week investigating Al Mabani, and what had become of Aliou Cande inside it. We’d launched a drone over the secretive facility and captured alarming images of mistreatment; we’d interviewed other migrants who had spent time with Cande in Al Mabani; we’d come to better understand the full scope of Europe’s support for what no one, including the E.U., disputed was a humanitarian crisis inside Libya’s migrant jails.
But we’d also come to the attention of Libyan authorities, and we worried that we’d been monitored throughout, including the possibility our hotel in Tripoli had been recording our conversations.
Now, there was a knock on the door. I was on the phone with my wife, and so I put the phone down. Within seconds, I’d been assaulted by a team of men with guns, thrown to the ground, violently kicked, my head stepped on. The men hooded me, and I was marched, barefoot, out of the hotel to I knew not where.
Al Mabani was created at the beginning of this year by Emad al-Tarabulsi, a militia leader from Zintan in the west of the country. The Zintan militias in 2011 helped to overthrow Qaddafi, and the brigade held his son as a political prisoner for years afterward. Today, the Zintan group is aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Unity, and al-Tarabulsi briefly served as that government’s chief of intelligence. The prison was built on the site of an old tobacco factory, in a corner of the city controlled by al-Tarabulsi’s militia. Members became the facility’s staff, and, in case of trouble, extra gunmen were at the ready. Within weeks, the prison’s population had exploded. Al-Tarabulsi appointed a trusted deputy, Noureddine al-Ghreetly, a soft-spoken militia commander, to run the prison.
Previously, al-Ghreetly had been in charge of a famously brutal migrant prison called Tajoura, located on a military base on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli. In a Human Rights Watch report, from 2019, six detainees, including two sixteen-year-old boys, described receiving severe beatings by guards at the facility, and one woman described being repeatedly sexually assaulted. The authors of the report recounted seeing a female detainee attempting to hang herself as guards looked on, providing no assistance.
In 2017, when Europe turned to Libya to catch and imprison migrants before they made it to the shores of Italy or Greece, there was a ready supply of formal jails and improvised holding centers to use. Across decades of authoritarian rule and civil war, the country has built scores of facilities to hold a variety of detainees: political prisoners, rival militia members, foreign mercenaries. Torture was commonplace in the facilities, as were killings. After the E.U. agreements were signed, these jails, as well as industrial sites and military facilities, were transformed into migrant prisons. There are currently some fifteen facilities used as recognized detention centers, although the number operating at a given time can fluctuate.
The E.U. concedes that the migrant prisons are brutal. An E.U. spokesperson told me, by e-mail, “The situation in these centres is unacceptable. The current arbitrary detention system must end.” Last year, Josep Borrell, a vice-president of the European Commission, said, “The decision to arbitrarily detain migrants rests under the sole responsibility” of the Libyan government.
In its initial agreement with Libya, Italy promised to help finance and make safe the operation of migrant detention. Today, European officials insist that they do not directly fund the sites. The E.U.’s spending is opaque, but a spokes spokesperson told me that it sends money only to provide “lifesaving support to migrants and refugees in detention,” including through U.N. agencies and international N.G.O.s that offer “health care, psycho-social support, cash assistance and non-food items.” Tineke Strik, a member of the European Parliament, told me that this doesn’t relieve Europe of responsibility: “If the E.U. did not finance the Libyan Coast Guard and its assets, there would be no interception, and there would be no referral to these horrific detention centers.”
She also pointed out that the E.U. sends funds to the National Unity government, whose Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration oversees the sites. She argued that, even if the E.U. doesn’t pay for the construction of facilities or the salaries of their gunmen, its money indirectly supports much of their operation. The E.U. pays for the boats that capture migrants, the buses that bring them to prisons, and the S.U.V.s that hunt them down on land. E.U.-funded U.N. agencies built the showers and bathrooms at several facilities, and pay for the blankets, clothes, and toiletries migrants receive when they arrive. The E.U. has committed to buying ambulances that will take detainees to the hospital when they are sick. And E.U. money pays for the body bags they’re put in when they die, and for the training of Libyan authorities in how to handle corpses in a religiously respectful manner. Some of these efforts make the prisons more humane, but, taken together, they also help sustain a brutal system, which exists largely because of E.U. policies that send migrants back to Libya.
Under Libyan law, authorities can detain foreigners indefinitely. Migrants have no access to a lawyer. No distinction is made between economic refugees, those seeking asylum, and the victims of illegal trafficking. The prisons, in addition to fulfilling a promise to Europe, can also make money for the militias that run them. One of the easiest rackets is “aid diversion,” by which militias siphon off money or supplies from humanitarian groups intended for detainees.
Since militias run the detention centers, they also tend to own or control the catering companies that service them.
Laws dating back to the Qaddafi era allow foreigners, regardless of age, who are not authorized to be in Libya, to be forced to work without pay, as punishment. Detainees can be picked up from a detention center by a Libyan national, who, for a fee, becomes the migrants’ “guardian” and oversees private work for a fixed amount of time. In 2017, CNN broadcast footage of a slave-like auction where migrants were sold for farm work and construction labor, with bidding starting at four hundred dinars, or about eighty-eight dollars, per person. Over a dozen migrants, some as young as 14, from Al Mabani and other centers interviewed this year by Amnesty International reported being forced to carry out construction or maintenance work in sites such as farms or private homes of militia leaders as well as cleaning or loading weaponry at military encampments during active hostilities.
It turned out; I was not the only one abducted that evening. At the time, my research team was on its way to dinner near our hotel. A white pickup truck rammed into a civilian car in front of them, blocking the road, and half a dozen men, armed with semi-automatic weapons and with masks over their heads, leapt from the truck. Their driver was taken from their van and pistol whipped. The armed men then blindfolded my colleagues and drove them from the scene. We were all taken to an interrogation room at a black site. I was punched several times without warning. I could overhear the men menacing other members of my team. “You are a dog!” one yelled at our photographer, striking him across the face. They whispered sexually threatening things to the only female member of our team, saying, “Do you want a Libyan boyfriend?” After a few hours, they removed our belts, rings, and watches, and placed us in cells.
I’ve since discovered, by cross-referencing satellite imagery of the city with landmarks that I spotted from detention, that we were located at a small, secret jail in a now-defunct section of Tripoli’s As-Shahab Port, seven hundred yards from the Italian embassy. Our captors told us that they were part of the “Libyan Intelligence Service,” which I later learned is an anti-terrorism and anti-espionage agency part of UN-recognized Government of National Unity and that is, in fact, associated with a militia called the Al-Nawasi Brigade. Our interrogators bragged that they had worked together under Qaddafi. One, who spoke conversational English, claimed that he had a couple of years ago spent time in Colorado, at a training program run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security focused on prison administration.
I was placed in an isolation cell, with a toilet, shower, threadbare foam mattress on the floor, and a ceiling-mounted camera. There was a small rectangular slot in the door through which twice a day guards handed tins of yellow rice or bottles of water. Every day, I was taken to an interrogation room and questioned for up to five hours at a time. “We know you work for the CIA,” a man kept telling me. “Here in Libya, spying is punished by death.” Sometimes, he put a gun on the table in front of me or pointed it at my head. To my captors, the very steps I had taken to try to safeguard my team became proof of my guilt. Why would they wear tracking devices? Why would they carry cash and copies of their passports in their shoes? Why would I carry two “secret recording devices” (an Apple Watch and a GoPro) in my backpack and keep a packet of papers titled “Secret Document” (actually, a list of emergency contacts titled “Security Document”).
The fact that I was a journalist was less a defense than a secondary crime. My captors told me that it was illegal to interview migrants, embassy officials, doctors, and others about abuses at Al Mabani. “Why are you trying to embarrass Libya?” they asked. They emphasized that the U.S. has its own problems, repeatedly telling me, “You people killed George Floyd.” I grew increasingly desperate. For a time, I opened the lid of the toilet and took apart some of the plumbing, hoping to use a piece of metal to unscrew the bars on the window. At one point, I tapped on the wall of my cell, and heard another member of my team tap back from the next one over, which, for reasons that don’t entirely make sense, I found reassuring.
Luckily, my wife had overheard the beginnings of my kidnapping on the phone and notified the U.S. government. Eventually, the State Department and the Dutch foreign service (since a member of my team was from The Netherlands) began lobbying the President of the Government of National Unity for our release. At one point, we were taken from our cells to record a “proof of life” video. Our jailers told us to wash the blood and dirt off our faces and to sit on a couch in front of a table with sodas and pastries. “Smile,” they said, instructing us to say to the camera that we were being treated humanely. “Talk. Look normal.” Eventually, after holding us captive for days, our captors agreed to let us go. We were required to sign “confession” documents written in Arabic on letterhead of the “Department for Combatting Hostile Activity,” and bearing the name of Major General Hussein Muhammad al-A’ib. When we sheepishly asked what the documents said, our captors laughed.
The experience—deeply frightening but mercifully short—offered a tiny glimpse into the world of indefinite detention in Libya. But we were not done with our efforts to tell Cande’s story.
Ian Urbina is the Director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environment and human rights concerns at sea globally
This story is in four parts. Read Part Four here >>