Libya's Haftar Brutally Strangled My City. He Should Not Be Legitimized by the West | Opinion

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar (C) attends a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi on May 7, 2018, during which he announced a military offensive to take from 'terrorists' the city of Derna, the only part of eastern Libya outside his forces' control. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

The relationship between politics and morality is a notoriously complex one. The lines we draw for ourselves have a way of blurring, or even vanishing entirely, when we face up to so-called political realities. We impose sanctions against some countries for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and yet we ally ourselves with others whose record of violations of these laws is even worse.

Nowhere will this moral conflict be made more obvious than in Palermo, where among the invitees to an ongoing international conference on Libya is General Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar, the self-proclaimed leader of the "Libyan National Army", or LNA, met the Italian Prime Minister for talks ahead of the conference, and has emerged as an important figure in the political life of the country. Haftar's forces control vast swathes of the oil crescent and the eastern part of Libya, and an unsettling narrative, largely created by Haftar himself, has emerged: that he is a freedom fighter, struggling bravely against the forces of extremists and anything else that comes under the vague designation of 'terrorist.'

General Haftar's protracted siege of the city of Derna, which entailed the closure of all routes in and out of the city, should alone concern those foreign representatives happy to treat him as an equal in Palermo. I was the last remaining council member in Derna before I, too, was forced to leave my home town. I lived through the siege and witnessed firsthand the atrocities that Haftar and his militiamen committed. Supplies of fuel, medicine and food rapidly went into shortage. No aid was allowed. Hospitals were bombed, people were displaced. And of course, no press was allowed in the city to tell the rest of the world what was happening.

At a time when the UN was leading efforts to reunify Libya and hold elections after years of turmoil, Haftar, in the name of freedom-fighting, led an asphyxiating siege that left a city—my city—on the very brink of humanitarian catastrophe. In his vocal opposition to ISIS, he may have succeeded in convincing some of his legitimacy. But his words cannot distract us from his actions, both direct and indirect.

But Haftar, as Human Rights Watch described in an open letter published in August 2017, is no stranger to brutal tactics. It is virtually his modus operandi: as legal experts have pointed out, he called for 'extrajudicial killings' and the 'choking' of Derna. His LNA is responsible for appalling violations relating to civilians as well as captured soldiers that go back to the 2011 uprising.

In a series of 2017 videos published to YouTube and Facebook, Major Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, a subordinate of Haftar's, can be seen summarily executing captured prisoners and in at least one case, posing with a corpse. In others, he "merely" presides over the killings as his men do it for him. In fact, The International Criminal Court issued two arrest warrants for these war crimes committed by Haftar's subordinates. When Haftar's forces took Benghazi, the LNA forces were photographed "killing, beating, executing, mutilating and desecrating the bodies of opposition fighters." These are not the actions of troops of a military officers claiming to be fighting terrorism, these are acts of terrorists. They are the calculated and cruel orchestrations of an autocrat, a strongman, a would-be tyrant.

More recently, he has outsourced his violence to militia for whom he, as the person with command responsibility of the LNA, is ultimately responsible for their actions. Awliya al-Dam, the 'Avengers of Blood' are affiliated with the LNA and have been accused of carrying out revenge attacks across eastern Libya. Witnesses also say they have looted and burned down homes. Human Rights Watch has said that some of the LNA's actions may constitute war crimes.Haftar is also known for his imprisonment of people from Derna in the infamous Quirnada prison, near Al-Bayda, where LNA military police commit gross violations against prisoners). Inmates at Qirnada describe being stripped naked, insulted, and in at least one case, being forced to sit on a red-hot electric stove. At the slightest mention of protest, Haftar and the LNA invoke the 'terrorist' label and continue to do as they please. The more power and legitimacy he accumulates, the harder it becomes to call out these lies.

Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign relations, warned over a year ago that the more Haftar is legitimized, the less likely it would be that he would ever be prosecuted. 'He cannot be trusted,' said Toaldo. And of course such a statement seems obvious to any informed onlooker, who has watched General Haftar plot a bloody path from a CIA asset to anti-Qaddafi revolutionary and now Libya's strongman leading the 'war on terror'. Like General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who promised to bring peace and stability to Egypt, only at the barrel of a gun, General Haftar has designs for complete control of Libya, and plans to enforce his brand of law and order by the means which come so naturally to a man of his ilk.

To arrive at a peaceful solution, a dialogue is necessary and efforts to start one must be welcomed. But as someone who has witnessed the unpunished crimes of Haftar and his militia first-hand, as someone who has seen him take the city of Derna to the edge of complete collapse, I implore those who have his ear in Palermo to ask him what his presence among the world's leaders represents to those who have needlessly lost their lives on account of his brutality and caprice. To allow him to share a table—to be an equal—to such people as Angela Merkel, already elevates a war criminal to the position of legitimate leader. In doing so, we are also pulling him away from the clutches of justice.

We should not need another lesson on the folly of appeasing or legitimizing criminals. Nor should those in the West have to be reminded that those who ally themselves with unsavoury characters in the Arab world for 'political' reasons rarely get what they want.

Ramzi al-Shaeri is the Vice President of the Local Council of Derna, Libya. He was the last remaining member of the council in the city of Derna, until recently being forced to flee.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​