On the evening of 12 September, a dispute between Eritrean and Nigerian detainees at the Khoms detention centre for “irregular migrants” had escalated into violence. During the chaos a group of Somalis chose their moment to escape.
The nine guards on duty were overwhelmed and they called in reinforcements.
According to detainees, some 10 vehicles with mounted machine guns arrived around 9pm and then men in military uniforms forced all Eritrean detainees into the courtyard for a beating.
A 29-year-old man from the Eritrean capital Asmara, who has spent six months in various detention centres across Libya, told Amnesty International that one man in military uniform hit him on the head with a metal bar and deliberately stepped on his hand with his military boots.
Other Eritreans said they were forced to lie down on the ground and were hit with rifle-butts or metal wires.
The severest beatings were reserved for the recaptured Somali escapees.
Mohamed Abdallah Mohamed, 19, still had visible injuries on his left shoulder, legs and face when I saw him on 14 September after I arrived at the centre having heard reports of shootings.
The Somali said that he was kicked, dragged on the ground, punched in the eye and beaten with the backs of rifles and sticks, after being caught by some seven people.
He was eventually taken to the hospital by detention centre guards, but complained of inadequate health care, continuing severe pain and an inability to see properly from his left eye.
Sixteen-year-old Somali Khadar Mohamed Ali was also recaptured, stepped on, and beaten with sticks and rifle-butts by men in military dress.
Following the escape attempt, a third Somali, Khadar Warsame, 21, ended up at the Intensive Care Unit of Khoms Hospital. He is receiving treatment for a head injury.
In the hospital, the reason for his injury is marked as a “fall”, but an impartial, independent and full investigation needs to be carried out into the violence that engulfed the Khoms detention centre on 12 September to establish the full truth.
Those reasonably suspected of committing acts of torture or other ill-treatment against detainees should be investigated and, where there is sufficient evidence, brought to justice. While their cases are being investigated, they should be suspended from duties where they can carry out similar abuses.
During a previous visit to Khoms, detainees – mainly from Sub-Saharan African countries like Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan – recounted their long list of grievances: overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, no regular access to healthcare, lack of recreational activities and outdoor time, occasional beatings, racism, insults and poor hygiene.
Their top concern remained that they were detained indefinitely and did not know what fate awaited them.
Detention centre guards and administrators also expressed concern about the lack of resources to meet the needs of the some 370 detainees including about 30 women.
They complained about delays in repatriating migrants and the frequent escape attempts.
The detention facility is managed by the Department of Combating Irregular Migration under the Ministry of Interior, but police officers and guards-on-duty rely on local armed groups nominally part of the Libyan army to contain riots and recapture escapees.
Since the toppling of the al-Gaddafi government last year, armed militias have filled the security vacuum left by the collapsed state and assumed a number of law enforcement functions.
The central government has shown itself unable – and at times unwilling – to rein them in. In some instances, the government continues to rely on armed militias to maintain law and order, turning a blind eye to their excesses. Armed militias still detain suspects outside the framework of the law and torture or otherwise abuse them.
This security vacuum, the proliferation of weapons and a judicial system in near paralysis leaves foreign nationals in Libya particularly vulnerable to abuse.
They have nowhere to turn to seek justice and redress. Their situation is unlikely to improve until the Libyan authorities take a number of steps including the ratification of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the introduction of a functioning asylum system and reform of legislation regulating the entry and stay of foreign nationals in Libya.
The Libyan authorities also need to put an end to the violence and other abuses perpetrated against foreign nationals – whether by law enforcement agencies, militias or regular Libyan nationals – and take serious measures to address the prevailing racist and xenophobic attitudes in Libya.
For now, foreign nationals particularly those in an irregular situation remain at the mercy of any Libyan who crosses their path.
If they are lucky, they secure paid work. Those less fortunate can find themselves forced to work for free, arrested or handed over to a militia, beaten and detained indefinitely in appalling conditions.
An Egyptian national who has lived in Libya for years told Amnesty International about his detention and torture after an argument with his Libyan employer over payment.
He was arrested at his Tripoli home in the middle of the night by three armed men. At their militia’s base, he said he was tied, suspended from a metal bar, and beaten with cables, water pipes and wires all over his body including on the soles of his feet.
He was later handed over to a detention facility for “irregular migrants”. He is hoping that a Libyan acquaintance will come to “sponsor” him and secure his release.
Otherwise, he – like thousands of others – risks indefinite detention and, ultimately, deportation without recourse to appeal.