After Libya Flooding, Signs Point to a Crackdown on Dissent

After Libya Flooding, Signs Point to a Crackdown on Dissent
After Libya Flooding, Signs Point to a Crackdown on Dissent

The authorities in flood-devastated eastern Libya appeared to be moving to muzzle dissent over the past week, arresting protesters and activists who have demanded accountability for what they say was a botched official response to the catastrophe.

Torrential rains that burst two dams unleashed a flood on Sept. 11 that swept much of the coastal city of Derna and the surrounding areas out to the Mediterranean Sea, killing thousands.

At least three people who either publicly criticized the government response or participated in a protest in Derna on Monday have been detained, according to witnesses and a relative. Aid workers and journalists also say the authoritarian administration that controls the eastern half of divided Libya, which includes Derna, restricted access to the city for some.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, internet and cellphone services in the city were also shut down, raising questions about whether they were deliberately severed by operators.

“The level of anger among people is very high, and communications have been cut off because they’re afraid of people expressing their anger publicly,” said Islam Azouz, a volunteer aid worker from Derna who attended the protest on Monday, where hundreds of people demanded that those responsible for the catastrophe be held to account.

“People lost their homes and their city. Of course they’re angry over the corruption and neglect that led to this disaster,” he added.

Officials in eastern Libya, however, said that damage or sabotage was to blame for the internet outages.

After Monday’s protest, some reporters for Arabic-language broadcast channels viewed widely across the Middle East said they were ordered out of Derna, while other journalists covering the rescue and relief operations said they were prevented from moving freely around the city or from re-entering it once they had left.

Foreign rescue teams and other aid groups appeared to be operating as usual. But Mr. Azouz said on Wednesday that some civilian volunteer groups from the other side of Libya’s east-west divide had been told to leave.

Two rival governments split control over the chaos-wracked country in the years after its 2011 Arab Spring revolt and the civil war that grew out of it.

A United Nations aid convoy traveling from Benghazi, the de facto capital of eastern Libya, was also turned away by the authorities in Derna on Wednesday without explanation, said Georgette Gagnon, the humanitarian coordinator in Libya for the U.N.’s aid coordination agency. However, other U.N. aid work in Derna continued unimpeded, she added.

“There hasn’t been an overall effort at all to restrict U.N. movements or restrict getting in humanitarian supplies,” Ms. Gagnon said.

The widespread confusion over access to Derna owed much to the disordered, divided and highly politicized state of Libyan institutions and media. Reliable information about the death toll and other basics was hard to come by even before the communications outage.

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that about 4,000 deaths had been registered in hospitals. But eastern administration officials have said the death toll is far higher. Some have estimated that as many as 11,000 people died, with thousands more missing.

Mohamed Eljarh, a former Libya analyst and consultant who began work on Tuesday as the official spokesman for the Benghazi-based eastern government’s emergency response committee, said on Wednesday that the authorities were attempting to streamline the chaotic relief efforts as aid-related traffic clogged the roads and crowded what was left of Derna.

But officials in the east still lacked clear protocols for authorizing entrance to Derna, he added, saying he did not know why the U.N. convoy had been blocked.

The eastern administration long controlled by the military strongman Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army, frequently justifies its actions by saying it is rooting out Islamist extremists. This time is little different.

Mr. Eljarh said the eastern authorities were concerned that anti-Hifter elements were infiltrating the aid effort to incite violence and inflame local grievances against the territory’s leaders, and that Islamist media outlets were politicizing the tragedy by broadcasting unfounded criticisms of Mr. Hifter.

But for residents furious about all they had lost in the floods, it seemed the Benghazi-based authorities were returning to the same repressive security tactics they often use to quell perceived threats to their power.

Hundreds of Derna residents gathered at a city mosque on Monday evening to protest the government’s response to the storm, calling for an international investigation into those responsible for maintaining the dams that had burst and for the removal of the speaker of Libya’s eastern-based Parliament, which is part of the territory’s administration.

They burned down the home of Derna’s mayor, a nephew of the speaker who was appointed by the Benghazi government, and circulated a list of demands. The speaker, Aguila Saleh, is another powerful eastern politician who generally aligns with Mr. Hifter.

Shortly after the demonstration, all communications in Derna were out, leaving residents, aid workers and others with no way to call, message or use mobile internet from early Tuesday morning through Wednesday night, when people there said internet had been restored.

Libya’s state-owned telecommunications company told local news outlets after communications were cut that the outage was caused either by damage to fiber-optic cables that may have occurred during the ongoing recovery operations or by sabotage.

By Tuesday night, the eastern government committee coordinating the emergency response announced that the damage was 70 percent repaired. That stood in contrast to the repair efforts immediately after the floods, when some communications were restored within just a few hours.

Two telecommunication executives working in Libya who had been briefed on the situation said that internet was restored after the network was turned on again and that no technical failures had been reported anywhere in the network, meaning that it had been shut off intentionally.

That would fit a pattern for the Benghazi authorities, who have ordered communications in another restive city, Surt, to be severed three times in the past four months for security reasons, said the executive, who asked not to be identified for fear of official retaliation.

Internal security forces arrested at least two protesters during the demonstration, including one of the organizers, according to Mr. Azouz, who was present, and to two other protesters who said they witnessed the arrests.

A journalist from Derna, Jawhar Ali, said his brother, a Derna resident who had gone on television to call for holding those responsible to account and to criticize how aid was being managed, had been arrested on Saturday.

The two protesters were later released, but Mr. Ali’s brother remained in custody, Mr. Ali said.

Though Mr. Eljarh, the spokesman, said “it was very clear that the people of Derna had legitimate concerns and grievances,” but he also said that anti-Hifter factions had used the protest to incite violence including the burning of the mayor’s home.

In Derna, relief teams and volunteers from all over Libya continued to recover bodies from the rubble, trying to identify them before burying them in mass graves.

Aid groups were warning that disease could spread quickly via contaminated water, with the Libyan National Center for Disease Control reporting 150 cases of poisoning already. Ms. Gagnon said several agencies were working with the authorities to repair the water supply.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.