08:00, September 04 166 0 theguardian.com

2020-09-04 08:00:06
Libyan warlord faces legal action in US for alleged war crimes

A $50m damages claim against the Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar lodged in a court in Virginia has claimed the US citizen is guilty of war crimes, including starvation sieges that forced families to eat grass and bark from trees to survive.

The claims launched by two relatives of his alleged victims are being filed in a bid to make him answerable somewhere for the war crimes he is accused of perpetrating as the head of the Libyan National Army, the major military force in the east of the country, which since 2014 has been in conflict with the Tripoli-based government in the west.

The claims focusing on the siege of Benghazi in 2016-17 is being supported by the high-profile lawyers Mark Zaid, who represented the US administration whistleblower who sparked the Trump impeachment, and the British solicitor Matthew Jury, who has represented families still seeking compensation from the era of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

With no functioning independent courts within Libya, and the international criminal court unwilling to file charges against Haftar, Jury said it was legitimate for victims of Haftar’s cruelty to file claims in Virginia, where Haftar and two of his sons, Saddam and Khalid, own property. Haftar lived in Virginia after he fell out with Gaddafi in 1987. His family is said to own 17 properties in Virginia, including an 85-acre estate.

The new claim has been entered by two Libyan citizens who allege he is responsible for the death of numerous family members.

US courts have a practice of accepting civil claims by US citizens seeking compensation for acts of terrorism by foreign powers. Sudan recently agreed to set up a $335m compensation fund for families who lost relatives due to Sudan providing help to al-Qaeda militants to mount attacks in Kenya.

The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, however, allows for the filing of civil suits in US courts by non-US citizens against individuals who, acting in an official capacity for any foreign nation, committed torture or extrajudicial killing.

The case filed on Wednesday has been brought by Ali Hamza, now a Canadian citizen, and Salimah Jibreel, who were both victims of the LNA’s siege of Benghazi in 2016. The cases have been lodged after the plaintiffs, traumatised by the events, felt strong enough to challenge Haftar.

Haftar is accused in the claim of “committing or presiding over acts of torture, extrajudicial killings, cruel and degrading treatment and imprisonment”.

Hamza says he was forced to flee his home in Benghazi after it was bombarded and looted. Some of his family – his wife Aalya, his two brothers, Ibrahim and Naser, and his three sisters, Fariha, Faiza, and Abtisam – took shelter in an unoccupied apartment in the suburb of Ganfouda where, despite appeals from human rights groups and embassies to lift the siege, they were forced to eat bark and grass and drink puddle water to survive.

The case states the Hamza family members became so weak that they could barely walk, and were subject to repeated artillery and aerial bombing attacks all around them. The combination of the engulfing dust from the bombing attacks and starvation caused them to experience temporary blindness.

Some family members were eventually killed in a tank shell attack at the end of February and others were killed when they tried to flee in March. One captured daughter alleges she was tortured.

In the other case, Jibreel claims she saw her three-year-old daughter Aziza and eight-year-old daughter Maryam, and her 11-year-old son Mohammad killed on 18 March 2017, when a shell hit their house. Her sole surviving 10-year-old daughter was injured, as was her husband.

The husband, Alaa, has been detained by LNA forces without charges and is still being held incommunicado in detention.

Faced by previous legal threats, Haftar initially tried to ignore the cases but, faced with the possibility of a default judgement, has hired lawyers to defend himself, including by claiming he is immune from prosecution since he should be treated as a head of state. The claim against him says he is not a head of state but subordinate to the Libyan House of Representatives, and cannot claim sovereign immunity.

“At all relevant times, Defendant Haftar knew or reasonably should have known of the pattern and practice of gross human rights abuses perpetrated against the civilian population by subordinates under his command,” the claim states.

Human rights groups allege war crimes have been committed on both sides in Libya’s on-off civil war, including by mercenaries hired by foreign powers, but some of the most documented abuses are alleged against the Haftar’s LNA. Despite the allegations against him, Haftar has often been allowed to meet European leaders, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

But Haftar’s grip on politics in the east may be weakening as he faces the consequences of a failed year-long siege of Tripoli.