Libyan Government To Investigate Tarhuna Mass Graves, Requests International Technical Aid

The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) announced yesterday that it would be forming a committee to investigate mass graves found in the city of Tarhuna. The committee is to be chaired by a forensic doctor, with members to be drawn from the General Authority for Investigation & Identification of Missing Persons, Interior Ministry and the Field Medicine and Support Centre. The committee will formally begin investigative work on Sunday.

Dr Kamal al-Siwi, head of the General Authority for Investigation & Identification of Missing Persons, speaks at a press conference in Tripoli yesterday. The formation of an investigative committee was announced at the press conference. (Photo courtesy Volcano of Rage Media Center)

The formation of the committee follows the discovery of 11 mass graves in and around Tarhuna after GNA forces captured the city from the Libyan National Army (LNA)-aligned Kaniyat militia that had ruled it. According to GNA reports, at least 300 bodies have been discovered in the graves so far, with women and children among the victims. The Media Centre for the GNA’s Operation Volcano of Rage reported the discovery of the body of a 12 year old girl that had been handcuffed in one of the graves, and other forensic reports suggest that some of the victims had been buried alive.

In response to the discovery of the mass graves, the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has requested that the United Nations Support Mission in Libya provide the GNA with technical support, human rights consultancy and support in documenting human rights abuses. Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Siala has written to the United Nations Security Council as well, requesting that the Security Council refer the discovery of the mass graves to the International Criminal Court. In the letter, the minister wrote that the Security Council needed to take a firm stance on the crimes committed by the Kaniyat militia, stating that the crimes committed amounted to crimes against humanity.

First responders work to remove five bodies thrown into a water well near Tarhuna. (Photo courtesy Volcano of Rage Media Center)

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has stated that he is “deeply shocked” by the discovery of the mass graves, calling for a “thorough and transparent investigation, and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice”. He reiterated a call for an immediate end to all fighting in Libya “in order to save lives and end civilian suffering”.

This is not the first time LNA forces have been accused of large-scale human rights violations. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in 2017 for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the LNA’s Al-Saiqa Brigade, for the extrajudicial killings of 33 people in and around Benghazi. While the LNA claimed to have arrested him for investigation after the issuing of the arrest warrant, he was never handed over to the ICC, and was even filmed recently claiming to be heading to the frontlines in Sirte.

Given the importance of Kaniyat militia personnel to the LNA’s Tripoli offensive (so much so that the militia was renamed the LAAF’s 9th Brigade), the discovery raises the ugly question of whether foreign nations providing materiel and diplomatic support to the LNA are complicit in war crimes committed by LNA forces. Perhaps in a bid to preempt scrutiny over French diplomatic support of Haftar, the French Foreign Ministry has instead accused Turkey of worsening the situation in Libya due to its “increasingly aggressive posture”.