By Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Ruth Michaelson
European leaders are embracing a Libyan general who has ordered his soldiers to commit war crimes, according to new evidence that has been analysed by senior legal experts.
The allegation of human rights abuses by Gen Khalifa Haftar, a former CIA asset who controls nearly half of Libya from his base in the east, comes as the general is due to arrive in Rome on Tuesday, where he will be received by Italian officials. The visit is a radical departure for Italy, who had previously shunned Haftar and seen him as a major obstacle to stability in the region because of his refusal to recognise the UN-backed government in the west.
The two experts – a former top Pentagon attorney and a former official at the international criminal court – said that newly unearthed video evidence suggests that Haftar has been complicit in calling for extrajudicial killings and the unlawful siege of the eastern port city of Derna. In one case, he is believed to have called for the “choking” of Derna just a day after he met Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, in Benghazi.
The new assessment, published on the Just Security blog, follows the recent issuing of an arrest warrant by the ICC for Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli, a member of Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Werfalli stands accused of executing prisoners himself, as well as commanding others to carry out extrajudicial killings. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also condemned alleged war crimes by the LNA.
The legal questions, and longstanding doubts among officials in the west about Haftar’s trustworthiness, have not dissuaded European leaders from seeking to forge an alliance with him.
The analysis by Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel to the general counsel of the Pentagon, and Alex Whiting, a former international criminal prosecutor at the ICC, paints a troubling picture of Haftar’s record.
The two experts point to a video that was posted on YouTube on 10 October 2015, recording a speech that Haftar gave to his LNA fighters on 18 September. In the speech, Haftar calls on his men to take no prisoners, which in legal parlance is called a “denial of quarter” and is a violation of the rules of war. “Never mind consideration of bringing a prisoner here. There is no prison here. The field is the field, end of the story,” he said in the video.
In another video, a spokesman for Haftar, Beleed al-Sheikhy, is heard saying in connection to fighting in Ganfouda, a district of Benghazi, that “who is above 14 years of age will never get out alive”. The video is believed to have been recorded in August 2016.
Haftar is a dual Libyan-US citizen who was once loyal to Muammar Gaddafi but then rebelled against the dictator. He was provided protection by the CIA around 1990 and was granted US citizenship. He lived in Virginia for two decades, where he reportedly trained in anticipation of a coup against Gaddafi. He later returned to Libya, where he has an unbreakable hold on the eastern bloc of the country, including a string of towns known as the oil crescent.
Even as experts who closely study the region say that Haftar is considered an untrustworthy and unreliable partner in Libya, diplomats increasingly see him as part of the country’s future.
On a trip to Benghazi this summer, Johnson met the Libyan general and said Haftar had a “role to play in the political process”. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who hosted Haftar and his rival, the UN-backed Libyan prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, also praised him, saying he and Sarraj had shown historic courage in agreeing to a ceasefire.
The UN envoy to Libya last week set out a new a plan under which Libya could hold elections within a year, and Haftar is widely seen as a candidate who would stand for president.
A former US official said it was believed that Haftar’s true goal was to run the country under a military dictatorship. The ex-official said European attempts to bring Haftar “into the tent” were understandable and pragmatic, because the creation of a stable government would not now be possible without his support.
Haftar has expanded his foothold militarily in part due to the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the former official added. He also has contacts within the Kremlin, and visited Russia for the third time in August this year.
The ICC issued its warrant for Werfalli, a member of the al-Saiqa brigade of the LNA, based on the “reasonable belief” that he had ordered the execution of 33 detainees in seven incidents from June 2016 to July 2017.
The Just Security article also pointed to a speech that Haftar gave in August 2017, a day after his meeting with Johnson, in which he appeared to be discussing the need to tighten the siege of Derna. Haftar said that ordering a blockade was tantamount to choking, and ought to involve a block on medicine, medical care, petrol and cooking oil.
Brig Gen Ahmad Mismari, a spokesman for the LNA, said he could not comment on the ICC warrant because the matter was under investigation. He also declined to comment on the allegations raised in the Just Security blog.
In an interview with the Guardian, Goodman said Haftar’s status as a US citizen made him subject to federal laws that criminalised violations of laws of war and risked criminal liability for any “aiders and abetters” who supported him in the US. Given his status, any decision to provide financial or other support to Haftar – including intelligence – by the US would first have to be cleared by a justice department office to ensure it was legal under US laws.
Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the more Haftar was legitimised, the less likely it was that he would ever be prosecuted. “It is up to the Europeans and the Americans to decide whether such a regime is stable, because what we have seen with the Arab spring is that repressive regimes are unstable,” he said.
“He is a useless devil. He cannot be trusted, much like most Libyan warlords, on the fight against terror, on migration, and I think also his military capacity is not as big as some people think,” he added.
Stephanie Kirchgaessner – The Rome correspondent for the Guardian
Ruth Michaelson – A journalist based in Cairo.