Francois Mori  /  AP
Men suspected of being mercenaries for Moammar Gadhafi are held in a district sports center next to the medina, set up as provisory jail in Tripoli, Libya.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/1/2011 8:20:09 PM ET 2011-09-02T00:20:09

Rebel forces and armed civilians are rounding up thousands of black Libyans and migrants from sub-Sahara Africa, accusing them of fighting for ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi and holding them in makeshift jails across the capital.

Meanwhile, stories of torture emerged from survivors who described how Gadhafi forces detained them in crowded metal containers and left them to die, Amnesty International reported Thursday. One survivor described a "day from hell."

In their own fight for leadership and control of Libya, the rebels' National Transitional Council has called on fighters not to abuse prisoners and says those accused of crimes will receive fair trials. There has been little credible evidence of rebels killing or systematically abusing captives during the six-month conflict. Still, the African Union and Amnesty International have protested the treatment of blacks inside Libya, saying there is a potential for serious abuse.

Virtually all of the detainees say they are innocent migrant workers, and in most cases there is no evidence that they are lying. But that is not stopping the rebels from placing the men in facilities like the Gate of the Sea sports club, where about 200 detainees — all black — clustered on a soccer field this week, bunching against a high wall to avoid the scorching sun.

Handling the prisoners is one of the first major tests for the rebel leaders, who are scrambling to set up a government that they promise will respect human rights and international norms, unlike the dictatorship they overthrew.

theGrio: Why it's a bad time to be black in Libya

Aladdin Mabrouk, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council, said no one knows how many people have been detained in the city, but he guessed more than 5,000. While no central registry exists, he said neighborhood councils he knows have between 200 and 300 prisoners each. The city of 1.8 million has dozens of such groups.

Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi told reporters this week that he'd visited several detention centers and found conditions "up to international standards."

"We are building a Libya of tolerance and freedom, not of revenge," he said.

Allegations against loyalists
According to Amnesty International, Gadhafi loyalists left 19 detainees to die of suffocation while locked inside metal containers in June in northwestern Libya. At least 10 perished, according to the human rights agency.

Three survivors described how they were tortured and then imprisoned in two containers at a construction site in al-Khums, east of Tripoli, on June 6. The detainees had been rounded up on May 20 by government forces and accused of taking part in anti-government protests in al-Khums, Amnesty reported.

The men said they didn't have any water and were forced to drink their own sweat and urine. They were stuck inside a cramped metal container as temperatures reached at least 104 degrees outside, Amnesty reported.

Abdel Rahman Moftah Ali, 24, was one survivor and told the agency he watched fellow inmates die. “None of us could stand up straight anymore. Foam was coming out of some people’s mouths … I saw my cellmates drop to the ground and become motionless one by one … I think I fell and hit my head … Eventually I regained consciousness, and was covered in blood … It was a day from hell.”

Another survivor, Faraj Omar Al-Ganin, 27, said that detainees became increasingly desperate as the hours went by. “For hours we were screaming for help; the detainees in the second container were doing the same,” he said. “It then became eerily quiet. I realized that I was the only one still conscious. I screamed: ‘They have all died’. The guards finally opened the doors. They then made me drag the bodies out by their feet.”

Amnesty officials said this was the first report of the June incident, because the site was off-limits to independent reporting until it fell under the control of the rebels' National Transitional Council in late August.

Mercenaries and migrant workers
Oil-rich but with a relatively small population of 6.6. million, Gadhafi's Libya welcomed hundreds of thousands of black Africans looking for work in recent decades. Many young citizens of Mali and Niger who flocked to Libya in the 1970s and 1980s were recruited into an "Islamic Legion" modeled on the French Foreign Legion. In addition, Gadhafi's military recruited heavily from black tribes in Libya's south.

In February, witnesses reported African fighters shooting at protesters or being captured by anti-Gadhafi forces. Witnesses have described scores of mercenaries being flown in to put down the rebellion, although many of the fighters already were in Libya.

As a result, people with roots in sub-Saharan Africa and black Libyan citizens have been targeted by rebel forces in the messy and confusing fight for control of the country.

In the Khallat al-Firjan neighborhood in south Tripoli, Associated Press reporters saw rebel forces punching a dozen black men before determining they were innocent migrant workers and releasing them.

The Gate of the Sea club near Tripoli's fishing port became a lockup Monday night, when residents rounded up people in the surrounding area.

Guards at the club said they looked for unfamiliar faces, then asked for IDs. Those without papers or whose legal residences were distant cities were marched to the club.

This week, an armed guard stood by a short hallway that led through two metal gates onto a soccer field surrounded by high walls. There was no roof, so the detainees clustered against the wall to get out of the heat.

One black Libyan from the southern city of Sebha said he had worked for a Tripoli cleaning company. A French-speaking man from Niger said he had a shop nearby. One black Libyan said he was in the army but quit during the uprising.

In an office nearby where sports trophies still lined the shelves, Ibrahim al-Rais, a 60-year-old fisherman, acted as prison director. A bag held wallets and IDs taken from the captives. Another was stuffed with cellphones, which occasionally rang.

He acknowledged that many of the detainees were likely innocent migrant workers stranded in the country but he insisted that a "big percentage" were mercenaries.

"These people were fighting against our people," he said.

As proof, his team pointed to ID cards issued in Libya's south that he said were fake and a document issued by the Niger Embassy in Tripoli. He said Gadhafi gave many mercenaries Libyan IDs so they could fight. He also said many had been carrying dollars or euros — which al-Rais said were mercenary wages.

Sabri Taha, a fish merchant in shorts and flip-flops who was guarding prisoners, said one had a video on his phone of a soldier shooting children. When asked by an AP reporter to play it, he couldn't find it. The prisoner said he didn't know how the video got on his phone.

In another detainee's wallet, Taha said he found a photo of the detainee in a green military uniform and accused him of fighting for Gadhafi. The detainee said he had manned a regime checkpoint, but had defected to the rebels when they reached the city.

The captors insist their prison is temporary and that the local military council will question the detainees before releasing them or transferring them elsewhere.

In the meantime, they started a handwritten list of the men's names, ages and nationalities.

"You see, we have no experience, but we have figured out how to get organized," said Abu-Bakir Zaroug, a local volunteer.

They still didn't know how many prisoners they held.

"The danger is that there is no oversight by any authorities, and the people who are carrying out the arrests — more like abductions — are not trained to respect human rights," said Diana Eltahawy of Amnesty International. "They are people who carry a lot of anger against people they believe committed atrocities."

Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
Pro-Gadhafi soldiers rest in a school converted into a prison in Tripoli, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

Running into the arms of rebels
For about a week, the Tripoli Local Prison has been receiving inmates and now holds about 300, said Anwar Bin Naji, a former prison employee who helps run the facility. About 50 are Libyans. The rest are from Ghana, Nigeria, Niger and other African countries.

"They are all arrested by rebels or by civilians who love the homeland," Naji said.

As he spoke, two rebel trucks carrying about a dozen black men entered the prison, honking their horns.

"Those are all mercenaries, or most of them," he said before speaking to the men.

In the cellblock, captives clustered by the barred doors of their cells. All said they were migrant workers who had come to Libya to work. Some said they'd lived here for years.

They said they hadn't been beaten, and were given simple food once or twice a day. They had drinking water, but none for bathing, they said.

Of the 28 people in one five-meter-by-six meter (15-foot-by-18-foot) cell, one had blistering burns on his face, neck and arm. Naji, the guard, said volunteers were still setting up a medical clinic.

The burned man, Ahmed Ali, said he'd come to Libya from his native Chad two years ago and worked as a house painter before the uprising.

"When the rebels entered Tripoli, some guys came and burned down my house," he said. He escaped and ran to some rebel fighters, hoping they'd protect him.

"They brought me here," he said, adding that he'd received no medical care in the six days since his arrest.

"They believe that most of the black in Libya are mercenaries, so now all the blacks on the street, they pick them up," he said.

Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

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Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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