Libyan warlord praised by Trump is sued in U.S. for alleged rights abuses, war crimes

Trump praised Haftar during a phone call in April and Arab allies are backing the former general in Libya's civil war.
Image: Fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord in the al-Sawani area near Tripoli, Libya, on June 13, 2019.
Fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord in the al-Sawani area near Tripoli, Libya, on June 13, 2019.Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — Four Libyan families are suing rebel leader Khalifa Haftar for alleged war crimes in federal court, accusing the U.S. citizen and renegade general of carrying out an indiscriminate bombing campaign in their home country that has claimed the lives of civilians.

The Libyan families filed their case in U.S. district court in Virginia on Wednesday, citing the deaths of their loved ones in alleged mortar, missile and bombing raids on the outskirts of Tripoli, according to court documents obtained by NBC News.

The lawsuit demands $100 million in punitive damages and $25 million in compensation for the suffering and trauma caused by the attacks.

Haftar, who is fighting to topple the Tripoli-based Libyan government recognized by the United Nations, "carried out his actions in a malicious, outrageous and willful manner without any regard for human life," the lawsuit states.

"The terrorist activities committed by Defendant Haftar constitute a violation of the laws of nations prohibiting torture, mass murder, indiscriminate destruction of civilian property and genocide," the lawsuit states.

Human rights groups have accused Haftar and his militia of indiscriminately bombing and shelling civilian targets, particularly in an offensive on Tripoli launched in April.

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The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and other foreign powers have lent strong support to Haftar, who has portrayed himself as a powerful figure who can deliver stability to Libya and crush Islamist militants. A 2017 U.N. report found the Emiratis have provided military and logistical support to Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.

President Donald Trump spoke to Haftar in a phone call in April, expressing appreciation for the warlord's role in countering terrorism in Libya, according to a White House statement issued afterward. The account of Trump's conversation with Haftar left the internationally recognized government confused and raised alarms in Congress, where lawmakers fear Haftar's forces could fuel chaos and terrorism in Libya.

Haftar, a former general under Moammar Gadhafi's regime, had to seek safety with the CIA after he broke with the late dictator. He lived in exile for 20 years, attaining U.S. citizenship and settling in Virginia. He returned to Libya after Gadhafi was toppled in 2011 by forces backed by NATO airstrikes.

Now Haftar oversees a rival administration in Benghazi and commands militia fighters who have tried to seize the capital of Tripoli, home to the internationally recognized Government of Accord, which was established during a peace agreement in December 2015.

Haftar’s campaign targeting Tripoli has left 460 dead and 2,400 wounded, according to the U.N.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Faisal Gill, said Haftar is a "war criminal" who must be held to account. "This is an American citizen committing crime after crime after crime and it’s going unanswered," Gill said.

Five House Democrats and two Republicans sent a letter last month demanding the Trump administration launch an investigation into Haftar's conduct, which they say undercuts U.S. interests in Libya and could violate the laws of war.

Haftar’s armed forces have shown a "flagrant disrespect for human rights," said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey who was one of the authors of the letter demanding an inquiry into the former general.

Haftar is a "U.S. citizen, and as such subject to a wide range of domestic laws on war crimes and torture — in addition to international conventions," Malinowski said in a statement.

"I will follow through on this and other measures to ensure that the international community does not forget Libya’s conflict and that the United States government remains committed to prosecuting war crimes and grave injustices," the congressman said.

The lawsuit cites the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protections Act, which have been used previously as a vehicle for foreign nationals to bring claims to federal court of torture, atrocities and extra-judicial killings that violate international law and the laws of war.

Representatives of Haftar could not be reached for comment.