A 37-page report, written by the prosecutor’s office in Palermo and seen by The Irish Times, documents allegations of sexual and labour exploitation, extortion and murder. It says the abuse took place inside Zawiya detention centre, in Libya’s northwest.
The men were identified by dozens of refugees and migrants, who eventually crossed the Mediterranean to safety in Europe.
The Irish Times is in contact with refugees still being held in detention in Zawiya, who welcomed the arrests but say torture and abuse is ongoing.
“People are still tortured, beaten, [made into] slaves and sold like a goat,” one man messaged on Monday, using a hidden phone. “It’s clear how many prisoners are dead from secret torture and poor medication, even [a] lack of nutrients, food. We hear in the middle [of the] night noisy screaming sometimes in the locked hanger.”
He said at least 20 detainees had recently been sold back to traffickers. “This place is the most dangerous,” he said.
In one incident, when people tried to escape, the guards opened fire on them, he said. One man was shot dead while another was badly wounded.
The refugee’s testimony has repeatedly been confirmed by other sources.
In April, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration moved 325 migrants and refugees from Qasr bin Ghashir detention centre in Tripoli to a detention centre in Zawiya, saying it had evacuated them to safety.
UNHCR has repeatedly been criticised by other aid workers, who accuse the agency of downplaying the scale of abuse and its own ineffectiveness to secure funding from the European Union.
For 2½ years, the EU has been supporting the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats on the Mediterranean and forcibly return refugees and migrants to Libya, where they are detained indefinitely in conditions that have been condemned by human rights groups.
Refugees and migrants who arrived in Zawiya in April said they were immediately met with threats and aggression by management and armed guards, and told how they would only see sunlight again after they paid substantial amounts of money.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, 82 refugees and migrants disembarked in Italy after they were saved off the Libyan coast by the Ocean Viking boat. This is the first time this year an NGO ship has been allowed disembark rescued people there, and marks a reversal of the country’s anti-immigration policies enforced by former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini under its new ruling coalition.
*This article was amended on September 19th, 2019