In a wave of paranoia sweeping the country, foreigners in Libya are at risk of being arrested for fear that they are pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. People are being arrested largely based on their skin color, as sub-Saharan Africans, Ukrainians, and Filipinos are among the thousands who have been arrested by rebel forces without evidence.
Human Rights Watch issued a press release calling for the NTC to stop the mass arrests and release those who have been incarcerated without evidence of being mercenaries. The New York-based agency found evidence earlier this year that Gaddafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa but said that was a good enough reason to arrest thousands of people without provocation.
In the past few years of Libya’s oil boom, the country had a huge influx of foreigners to take on jobs that Libyans either did not want to do or were not trained for, including restaurant work, gardening, construction, and health services, the Associated Press reported. It is estimated that there are approximately 1.5 million foreigners in country with a population of 6 million.
A rebel official estimated that approximately 5,000 people have been arrested on mercenary charges, including elderly workers and women, reflecting the intensity of the paranoia.
"How can we be snipers?" asked Maksim Shadrov, a cook from Ukraine who was arrested along with his wife and 17 other of his fellow countrymen. "They are old. She is a woman. We are not snipers," he said.
A rebel commander said that he had no evidence the Ukrainians were snipers, but held them nonetheless, despite a diplomat's efforts to free them, the AP reported.
People with black skin have been especially targeted, due to evidence that many mercenaries from Chad, Sudan, and other sub-Saharan countries had indeed been hired by Gaddafi in the early stages of the revolution.
The mass arrests have created a climate of fear among Libya’s immigrant population, with many dark-skinned people afraid to leave their homes.
"Every black is a target," said Tony Biney, a teacher from Ghana, who stayed home with his wife for two weeks before finally risking a trip to church.
“It’s a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The NTC has legitimate concerns about unlawful mercenaries and violent activity, but it can’t simply arrest dark-skinned men just in case they think they might be mercenaries,” Whitson added. “African migrants have worked in Libya for many years, often carrying out the most unpleasant jobs, and this is no way to treat those who stayed put during the uprising.”
“At about 10 p.m. a big group of Libyans came with the owner of the building,” said a 25 year-old man from Mali who was detained last month as he described the arrest to HRW. “They tied us up, took all of our passports and possessions, and beat us. They brought us to a big mosque in the neighborhood, and then they went to other African houses and arrested them. In the end, they had more than 200 Africans in there. Then they put us on vehicles and took us around town shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ [“God is great”] and saying we were mercenaries they had captured.”
HRW said that the mass arrests do not appear to be a systematic, centralized process, but have been carried out by small, separate factions of the NTC government being done to “secure the revolution.”
The watchdog agency interviewed several detainees and said that the prison conditions for the African detainees were far worse than those of the Libyans, with cramped quarters, a “putrid stench,” and many detainees complaining about a lack of water, poor sanitation, and not being allowed to contact family.
Women may also be victims of abuse. Several detainees who spoke to HRW have said that armed rebels have been raping the female detainees. However, HRW was not able to interview the alleged rape victims.
The NTC said that all detainees were being treated humanely and would not be held indefinitely. It also said that it will maintain international human rights standards.
HRW said that the NTC is showing signs of beginning a judicial process for some of the detainees.