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Congress comes to the aid of Libyan people, passing bill ordering probe into war crimes and torture

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Last Friday the U.S. Congress passed two important measures that have the potential to help Libyans in their struggle to break through ongoing political gridlock in the country. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) introduced amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022. The first requires that the president review alleged arms embargo violators for sanctions under Executive Order 13726 (81 Fed. Reg. 23559); the second requires that the Department of State report on war crimes and torture committed by U.S. citizens in Libya. This latter amendment has one name written all over it: warlord Khalifa Haftar, U.S. citizen and self-appointed commander of the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces.”

Haftar came to the U.S. soon after Libya lost the 1987 war with Chad, during which he was in charge of some of Gadhafi’s Libyan troops. Haftar became a CIA asset and later a U.S. citizen. At the time, the Gadhafi regime was at the top of Washington’s list of state sponsors of terror, so gaining access and intelligence from Gadhafi’s inner circle was thought to be of great value. 

Haftar returned to Libya in 2011, following the uprising that toppled Gadhafi, becoming a key military commander of the newly formed militia force in the East. His so-called Libyan National Army’s “war on terror” in Benghazi brought misery to Libyans who live in fear of Haftar. Human Rights Watch reported torture, disappearances, seizure of property, looting and destruction committed by Haftar’s forces in the East. Fully controlled by Haftar’s iron fist, the East of Libya became a police state. Later on, Haftar’s failed assault on Tripoli left 200,000 people displaced, mass graves in Tarhuna, and an ever more divided country.

Just days before the U.S. Congress passed the amendments, Haftar stepped down from his military role for the next three months, intending to run for president in the elections scheduled for Dec. 24, and assigning his chief of staff to assume duties for this brief period. This came as Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based parliament and Haftar’s ally, passed a law allowing serving officials to run in the elections if they step down from their posts three months before. Libyan political factions, however, have yet to agree on the election law, which remains without consensus as the UN-led Libyan dialogue failed to agree on the election’s legal framework. Additionally, current law in Libya prohibits individuals with dual citizenship — which Haftar holds — from running for the office.

The action by Congress brings a glimpse of real hope for Libyans. Included in that action is the bipartisan Libya Stabilization Act, H.R. 4644, introduced by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.),  Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) that just passed the House with a 386-35 vote. The bill is introduced in the Senate, also in bipartisan fashion, by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and should be passed promptly. After President Biden signs the bill, his administration should act fast to sanction and sideline Haftar, who is viewed by many to be the “elephant in the room” preventing Libya’s progress.

The U.S. administration should also coordinate with the EU to block property and suspend entry visas for those committing war crimes and violating the Libyan arms embargo.

A decade has passed since the Libyan people said no to dictatorship, and they have since endured almost continuous political turmoil, violence, kidnappings, rampant corruption, empty promises, nepotism, and lawlessness. Libyans deserve better.

Congress has emerged as the Libyan people’s best ally in helping them fight for and achieve their right to live in freedom, peace, and democracy, and not under yet another dictator.

Two days after the House of Representatives passed the Libya Stabilization Act on Sept. 28, a contract with Washington D.C. lobbyists Haftar hired at the beginning of the month was cancelled.

Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Debra Cagan is the Distinguished Energy Fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and worked as a career State Department diplomat and Defense Department official from the Reagan to Trump administrations, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for coalition, peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief where she headed coalition operations for Iraq and Afghanistan; senior director of European, Russian and Eurasian security issues; special adviser for strategic and nuclear policy for Europe; and senior adviser to U.S. and NATO military officials.

Tags Chris Coons Chris Murphy Government of Libya Joe Biden Joe Wilson Khalifa Haftar libya Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Ted Deutch Ted Lieu Tom Malinowski Torture War crimes

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