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Does Libya have the ability to hold accountable those responsible for the Derna disaster?

September 28, 2023 at 8:02 am

An aerial view of devastation after the floods in Derna, Libya on 18 September, 2023 [Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency]

Libya’s Prosecutor General (PG), Al-Siddiq Al-Sour, on 15 September toured the flood devastated Derna, five days after it was struck by Storm Daniel, resulting in the killing, injuring and displacing of tens of thousands of people and washing away at least one quarter of the city into the sea.

Entire families still seated in their cars, apparently attempting to flee the waters, were dumped into the sea. Mr. Al-Sour promised what his office described as a thorough and inclusive investigation to “determine deaths and losses” in order to ascertain responsibility. On 25 September, his office indicted 16 officials on charges of neglect, mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds, among others. Seven officials have been remanded in custody, pending investigation. The former Mayor of Derna, Abdel Moneim Al-Ghaithi, is supposed to be in jail, too, but there are unconfirmed reports that he has already fled the country.

Compared to previous investigations, the PG appears to be moving rather fast in attempting to provide answers to dozens of questions that have been enraging people all over the country as to how such a disaster could have taken place at all when the writing was on the wall that Daniel was heading to Libya days before it made its landfall. Mr. Al-Sour’s rather swift action appears to be gaining widespread public approval, judging by reactions to his office’s Facebook page.

READ: 8 officials jailed as part of investigation into deadly dam collapse in Libya

Now, Mr. Al-Sour is under the public spotlight and his task is enormous in an already complicated political scene in a divided country. Dernawis and Libyans, in general, demand swift action and severe accountability to include anyone suspected to have played a role, however unintentionally or through good-will in the disaster.

Libyans, despite their miserable situation, still have high respect for their Judiciary, despite its shortcomings and lack of reinforcement of its decisions in the militias-dominated security scene. Mr. Al-Sour is seen as the last resort for justice in a country where justice and accountability have not been part of the political elite’s lexicon for the last 12 years, and beyond.

Part of the investigation is focusing on the days and hours leading to the disaster on 10 September, before moving on to deal with past issues, including 2014 payments made to the Turkish company supposed to have maintained the two Derna dams when, in fact, it did not—it is the collapse of both dams that exacerbated the disaster to an unimaginable magnitude. The PG’s office, in its initial indictment, said that the company was paid a “disproportional” amount of money compared to the work done.

Lack of leadership, neglect, corruption, confusion and mismanagement before and after the disaster are also of interest to the PG’s investigation, as they manifest weak government and lack of top-down follow up, particularly to local governments such as the Municipality Council of Derna, whose Facebook page reflects much of that, especially during the hours before disaster struck.

For example, on a post published on 9 September, a day before the storm hit the city, the Council orders residents to follow “procedures”, including evacuating the “areas bordering the coast”. The same post, however, orders people to stay “indoors for their safety” effectively imposing curfew—two conflicting orders in the same short Facebook post. You either ask people to leave or stay, but asking them to do both at the same time is confusing, to say the least.

READ: In Libya, lack of a unified crisis management hinders international aid, says Presidential Council

The timing of this particular post is also a problem. It was published at precisely 07:26 pm, when the rain was heavy, flooding streets and people were busy doing what they could to protect their families. The Council knows that Dernawis, like many Libyans, get their news from social media, which means the timing of any important post is critical, particularly in an emergency situation. Judging by the number of people who reacted to the post – only 177 people – it is clear the Council was already behind the events, overwhelmed and discredited.

In another post dated 10 September, the day the disaster struck, the Derna Mayor met with other officials and decided to “impose curfew” for the safety of residents. This post is a stark example of lack of leadership and confused officials, because it was published on 11 September after one quarter of Derna was already washed into the sea.

Now, it is clear that the decision not to force people to evacuate was a big mistake, followed by the disastrous decision to impose curfew. Many Derna residents who managed to reach the internet expressed their anger and frustration over the way their municipality operated.

On 9 September, after meeting with Director of Derna Security, Major-General Embarak Al-Barassi, and Attorney-General, Counselor Anwar Attia, the Mayor, Mr. Al-Ghaithi, announced the creation of an Emergency Committee to deal with “what might happen because of the storm”.  The important part in the video comes when he said that the Municipal Council has “dedicated” all responsibility to the Major-General, sitting to his left. The decision to give up responsibility in time of emergency is illegal and the Mayor does not have the mandate to take it, in the first place.

Many think Mr. Al-Ghaithi, the nephew of Libya’s Speaker of Parliament. Aqila Saleh, tried to absolve himself from what might happen in his city.

READ: WHO responds to Libya’s flood disaster with focus on health care access, disease prevention

How the situation before, during and after the disaster was handled is yet another stark indication of how badly managed Libya is today, compared to how it used to be, a decade earlier. The Gaddafi regime had its share of neglect, mismanagement and corruption, but nothing compared to this. However, it is unlikely the PG’s investigation would go all the way to touch on the 2011 events that led to Libya being in its current predicament.

Criminal investigation is important and accountability is critical; however, to learn lessons from the tragedy, a public inquiry is essential.  It also remains to be seen how far the current investigation will go and who the officials likely to face the law will be, in a country where corrupt and negligent officials simply flee for the safety of other countries. A recent example is that of the former minister of foreign affairs, Nejla Al-Menghoush, who simply fled prosecution after meeting Israel’s Foreign Minister, which is a punishable crime under Libyan law.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.