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Smuggler who ‘revelled in’ torturing migrants arrested in Italy



Lizzie Dearden

A Somali man who colluded with Libyan smugglers to torture and extort fellow migrants in squalid prisons has been arrested in Italy as the refugee crisis continues to worsen.

Police on the island of Lampedusa said the 23-year-old suspect, Mohamed Ahmed Taher, “revelled” in beating asylum seekers and may have killed at least two people.

Giovanni Minardi, who headed the team who detained Taher, told the Ansa news agency he was part of a transnational armed criminal organisation dedicated to human trafficking, kidnapping, sexual assault, murder and illegal immigration.

Migrants who identified Taher as a torturer employed at a detention centre in Libya’s’ south-eastern Kufra region told prosecutors that after making the boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea on 27 May he attempted to threaten them into silence.

“On my arrival, Mohamed the Somali was already in the [centre’s] structure,” said one victim.

“He beat the migrants. He revelled in humiliating us and throwing his weight around.

“I remember once the Libyan man, who owned the camp, had to tell him off because he was beating us so badly that it was killing people.”

Taher is accused of beating migrants with rubber hose, burning them with petrol and threatening with them with weapons.

As in similar past cases, police said asylum seekers were sometimes tortured while traffickers spoke to their relatives on the phone to pressure them into paying for their freedom and safety.

At least two people who attempted to escape the camp were reportedly beaten to death, while those fleeing other Libyan detention centres have been shot and killed.

Taher is the sixth person detained in Italy since March on suspicion of torturing migrants in Libya, where smuggling gangs have set up a ruthless trade amid the chaos of the country’s ongoing civil war.

The UN has warned of migrants being bought and sold at “slave markets” and being detained in official and unofficial prisons where they are raped, tortured, starved and held to ransom by armed gangs.

Survivors have told The Independent of being sold from one “owner” to another while being forced into manual labour, with those asking for wages or struggling with the work killed.

The centre in Kufra is part of a smuggling chain stretching from the Libyan coast, which is the main launching point for refugee boats towards Europe, back through Sudan to sub-Saharan African nations.

The Sahara is thought to be the deadliest zone for migrants, with 52 people dying in Niger after being abandoned in the desert by smugglers last week and many more being murdered or killed by thirst, hunger  or falling off overloaded trucks.

The vast majority of asylum seekers currently making treacherous sea journeys to Europe are from African nations including Guinea, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gambia, as well as Bangladesh, Syria and Iraq.

More than 85,300 migrants have arrived over the Mediterranean so far this year, with more than 2,000 dying in the attempt.

The bodies of at least 25 people who drowned off the coast of Libya were found near Tripoli on Tuesday after being washed up on a beach in a state of decomposition.

Almost 8,900 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast on Sunday and Monday alone, after apparently being launched en masse in overcrowded fishing boats and smugglers’ dinghies.

Save the Children’s Vos Hestia was among the ships taking part in the huge operation, rescuing 1,065 people including a woman who gave birth on board.

She and her child were evacuated by helicopter to receive medical treatment in Malta, alongside two other pregnant women.

All ships at the scene of continuing rescues on Tuesday reported that they were full, even as new migrant boats were spotted approaching on the horizon.

Rob MacGillivray, Save the Children’s director of search and rescue, said the charity’s vessel had seen a “massive increase” in rescues since last year.

“There’s no indication that there’s going to be a decrease, which makes it all the more important that there’s a joined-up European response to guarantee people safe passage and their status when they arrive,” he told The Independent.

“The NGOs can only deploy what they’ve got and they have limited capacity.”

Mr MacGillivray called the Mediterranean Sea “one of the largest unmapped graves in European history”, calling on politicians to change a narrative seeing migrants increasingly demonised as rescuers are accused of worsening the crisis.

NGO rescue ships, naval vessels, Frontex assets and commercial ships are being deployed by Italian commanders who are coordinating operations in international waters from Rome.

The EU has been attempting to increase cooperation with the fragile Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to reduce crossings, handing over millions of euros and equipment including new patrol boats.

But the push has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups warning that any move to force refugees back to war-torn Libya, where they face torture and death, is a violation of international law.

The number of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece has fallen dramatically since the EU-Turkey deal was imposed in March last year, seeing anyone arriving on islands detained under threat of deportation.

Migrants are also journeying into Europe by land, including via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, bordering Morocco, and over the border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

Around 400 asylum seekers attempted to enter France through woods from the Italian town of Ventimiglia on Sunday, being tear gassed by Italian police as their French counterparts used dogs to hunt down anyone who made it through.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it was concerned for the welfare of at least 100 migrants who had been sleeping near a river in Ventimiglia and disappeared on Monday, with a 16-year-old boy known to have died while washing his clothes there.

Italy, which is housing more than 190,000 asylum seekers in state-funded accommodation, has criticised other European countries for failing to resettle asylum seekers and help rescue efforts.

“I’m sorry that not everyone, including in Europe, has shown the same willingness to take people in [as Italy has],” Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in a message marking World Refugee Day last week.

“The refugee issue crosses national borders and involves the entire EU and is, in the end, a global phenomenon.”

Briefing Room

In Somalia, women defy strict rules to play football



MOGADISHU – (AFP) – Shortly after sunrise, a group of young women arrives at a football pitch in Mogadishu, where they shrug off their hijabs — some changing underneath the billowing veil — to reveal their team kit.

Young Somali men stand nearby, some disapproving but all watching closely, as the women jog up and down, dribble a worn-out ball between colourful cones and do sit-ups, less than 200 metres (656 feet) from a heavily guarded security checkpoint.

The sight of young women playing football is highly unusual in Somalia, due to societal pressures as well as fear of Al-Shabaab.

The Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group launches regular attacks in Mogadishu and considers forms of entertainment, such as football, to be evil, worse still if women are involved.

“It is obvious that we are scared despite the fact that we put on heavy clothes over our shorts and T-shirts (until) we get to the pitch. It is very difficult to walk normally with sports clothes — we never wear sports clothing in society,” said Hibaq Abdukadir, 20, one of the footballers.

She is among 60 girls, who have signed up to train at the Golden Girls Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia’s first female soccer club.

‘Think differently’

Mohamed Abukar Ali, the 28-year-old co-founder of the centre, said he was inspired to create the club after he realised that Somalia had no female footballers.

“We are… trying to make these girls the first Somali female football professionals,” he said.

However this is not an easy task.

Somali football players of Golden Girls Football Centre, Somalia’s first female soccer club, attend their training session at Toyo stadium in Mogadishu, on March 5, 2018. PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB |AFP

“When the girls have to attend training sessions, we have to organise to pick them up and bring them here and back home after the session because they are girls and we think about their security,” said Ali.

“There are so many challenges, from security to lack of resources… but that will not deter our ambition to establish female football clubs in this country,” he said. “We believe it is the right time and we should have the courage to think differently.”
‘They look naked’

Many of the girls who have joined the club said they had always wanted to try playing football but never had the opportunity.

“I have been playing football for seven months, but my family has only known about it for two months,” said Sohad Mohamed, 19.

“I used to dodge my mother about where I was going because she would not allow me to play football, but at least my mum is okay with it now, even though the rest of my family is not happy.”

In Somalia, it is taboo for women to appear in public dressed in shorts, trousers or T-shirts, with Islamic scholars saying sports clothing is not appropriate Islamic dress for women.

The players wear tights underneath their baggy shorts, and cover their hair, but still face criticism for their dress.

“I come to watch them train but frankly speaking, I would not be happy to see my sister doing it, this is not good in society’s eyes because they look naked,” said Yusuf Abdirahman, who lives near the football field.

Mohamed Yahye, another onlooker, is happy to see women playing football but is also concerned about how they are dressed.

“I think there is nothing wrong with women playing football, the only thing they should change is the dress code, they need to wear something that is not slim-fitting. But as long as their body is not seen, they are in line with the Islamic dress codes,” he said.

However the Golden Girls are not fazed.

“My ambition is so high that I aim for the same progress as those female footballers who play for Barcelona,” said Abdukadir.

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Briefing Room

A dream of a continental free trade area deferred



DAILY MAVERICK — A dream of establishing a continental free trade area in Africa has slipped back again after a last-minute decision by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari not to attend the summit in Rwanda where an agreement was set to be finalised. South Africa, the other large economic player on the continent, also has its reservations.

There was a hint of dejection as ministers filed into the beehive-shaped Kigali Convention Centre on Monday morning, in the midst of the rainy season, to hammer out the details of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

The special summit was called by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who this year also chairs the African Union, and talk in the weeks ahead of the gathering was that the agreement only needed a few final touches and that everyone was on board.

It was supposed to be the breakthrough Africa needed before finally rising, and the no-nonsense Kagame was the one to drive this.

The process started in 2012, and free trade was already supposed to have been a thing by 2017, so there was a goal to meet.

Ambassadors had on Saturday already pored over the paperwork, and it was up to the ministers to fine-tune it before the presidents arrive on Wednesday to sign the agreement.
After this, it would have to go through individual country processes, such as parliaments, to be ratified and come into force.

On Sunday, however, news came from Nigeria, which was bidding to host the CFTA secretariat and which chaired the technical negotiations team, that president Muhammadu Buhari had abruptly cancelled his trip to Rwanda.

ThisDay reported that he was already on his way to the airport on Saturday, but was then told to turn back. This was after business groups in Nigeria objected to the signing of the agreement, saying there had not been enough consultations.
They feared that Nigeria would be overwhelmed by business from the outside without Nigerians benefiting from it.

Also, incidentally, the country is having presidential elections next year, in which Buhari might be running again, which might explain the sudden – some would say undue – pressure from within.
Still, Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama arrived at the ministers’ meeting where he possibly had a lot of explaining to do.

Outside of the fight about where the secretariat should be located (indications were that even though both Nigeria and Ghana made a bid for it, it was decided to have it at the African Union’s headquarters of Addis Ababa for now), countries had concerns about the dispute resolution mechanisms in the AfCFTA, and also about whether it would effectively be able to prevent dumping.

That would occur if a country outside Africa used an African country with weak import controls to bring goods in from the outside, using it as a springboard to distribute duty-free to the rest of the continent. Instead of promoting business in Africa, as the AfCFTA is supposed to do, this would undermine it.

South Africa, another leading economy on the continent, also had some reservations about the fine print as well as the Protocol on the Free Movement of People, even though President Cyril Ramaphosa apparently indicated that his pen was ready.

Most of the AU’s 55 member states seemed to have no principled objection to signing the agreement and the legal instruments to establish the AfCFTA, which really means nothing much until it’s ratified by all. This happens when local laws and regulations are brought into line with the agreement through a parliamentary process.

South African officials on Monday morning were still unclear about whether Ramaphosa would sign the agreement or not, although some in the Nigerian delegation seemed to be under the impression that Ramaphosa would join Buhari in abstaining.

Ramaphosa himself was expected to attend the summit, and he even arranged to arrive earlier on Tuesday afternoon to attend an AU-organised business summit ahead of the heads of state gathering where the agreement would be signed.

On Monday, international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu was left to deal with the negotiations even as South Africa’s brand new administration was still busy settling into the continental body (this is her first summit in her new position, and it’s likely that she would have a few bilaterals with her counterparts from other countries to introduce herself).

There was also reported disagreement on how many states needed to sign the agreement for it to come into force. At the lower end, some said 15 states would be enough, while others wanted at least 37. Leaders could eventually settle for something in between, such as half of the states.

As the meeting broke for lunch on Monday, it still wasn’t clear exactly how many states would sign, but an official involved in the negotiations said it was “a good number” and that he was optimistic.
AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahammat imparted the urgency of getting the AfCFTA going in a hard-hitting opening speech, and he seemed to urge leaders to come to an agreement:

“Our continent is at a crossroads,” he said.

“What path will she choose? That of maintaining the status quo, which means making cosmetic changes relating to borderline adjustments which have no real impact on the lives of our populations, or that of effecting a paradigm shift which requires us to look far into the horizon for a truly integrated Africa?”
This would be “structurally reformed economically, guaranteeing the freedom of movement and settlement to all her daughters and all her sons, as well as offering, in the final analysis, fulfilling and promising living conditions for her youth, in a bid to reverse migratory flows”, he said.

Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in her opening speech that the agreement should enter into force as soon as possible, but “with everybody feeling comfortable about it”.

She said the agreement would be to the advantage of Africa, which could then act as “a global player” to promote the continent’s economic interests and attract investment, create jobs and improve things for the people.

The official line is that the AfCFTA agreement would grow intra-African trade, which is still lower than trade between African countries and the outside, by 55% by 2022, and Africa’s exports to the rest of the world would grow by 6%.

Life would also be better for small cross-border traders.

The agreement would open a market of 1.2 billion people, and is one of the flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for a transformed Africa.

The other projects are the Single African Air Transport Market and the Protocol on the Free Movement of People.

Even though the protocol was still in draft on Monday, AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry Albert Muchanga promised that it would be ready for signing when heads of state meet on Wednesday.

The dream, however, would have to be deferred for a little while longer. DM

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Briefing Room

In a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors



HRW — A young Eritrean man died on Tuesday in Sicily of tuberculosis compounded by severe malnutrition. His name was Segen.* He was 22.

There is so much about Segen we may never know. Did he prefer to read books or play football? What music did he like? Had he ever been in love? Who did he leave behind?

This is what we do know: Segen was rescued from the Mediterranean on Sunday by Pro Activa Open Arms, a Spanish group, and disembarked in Sicily on Monday. He died in the hospital. He told rescuers he was held captive in Libya for 19 months.

Segen may have been held in an official detention center or by smugglers – in today’s Libya, both are similar and brutal. He may have been held for ransom, or tortured while forced to call home so his family could hear him scream as he begged them to send money. He may have been sold from one smuggling network to another or forced to work without pay.

These possibilities are based on accounts I heard from migrants who escaped Libya. When I went out on a rescue ship run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médécins sans Frontières, they rescued many Eritreans and Somalis who had spent many months in captivity in Libya; some were severely emaciated.

If Segen had survived, there’s a good chance he would have been granted the right to stay in Europe; most Eritreans are because of serious repression, including indefinite military conscription, in Eritrea.

Yet European governments are empowering Libyan authorities to stop migrant boat departures and intercept – including in international waters – ones that do launch. All of those on board are then indefinitely detained in Libya.

While implementing policies that effectively trap people like Segen in horrible abuse, European governments are failing to resettle people the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, evacuates from Libya to Niger. Just over 1,000 people have been taken to Niger, but only 55 have been resettled to Europe, leading Niger to ask UNHCR to temporarily suspend the program.

Europe can and should do more. Our governments should focus on ending the cycle of captivity and violence in Libya and help as many people as possible reach a place of safety. Ramping up resettlement is a good place to start.

*Italian authorities registered his name as Tesfalidet Tesfon, but he was known as Segen.

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