Abdul-Nasser Ruhuma was asleep in his bed when the militia fighters barged into his Tripoli home. The shouting woke the Libyan bank worker and he rushed downstairs to find around 40 men pointing their rifles at him.
Moments later they started beating him. Ruhuma’s wife and relatives begged the intruders to stop but they dragged him and his uncle away. Punched, hit with rifle butts and cut with knives, Ruhuma was taken to a makeshift detention center in the middle of the night.
In a stark reminder of the lawlessness that prevails in Libya eight months after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, the gunmen never told Ruhuma why they abducted him. He says it stems from a family issue – a relative wanted revenge, so he called on the help of an armed brigade.
“We weren’t told anything, we were just beaten – our hands, our legs, our bodies,” the 42-year-old father of two said. “I thought I would never make it out alive.”
Libya’s aspirations to replace Gadhafi’s repressive rule with an ordered, democratic nation are being undermined by increasingly wayward volunteer militias who operate outside the control of fragile state institutions.
The militias attract most attention when, mounted on their battered pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns welded to the back, they fight pitched battles in city streets against rival groups, usually over some perceived slight or a dispute over territory.
But it is their less visible activities that have done the most to puncture the sense of euphoria and freedom that followed Gadhafi’s downfall.
Human rights groups have documented a series of cases of militias going to people’s houses, spiriting them away and, often, beating and torturing them.
Ruhuma was released only after his relatives called government security forces for help. They found him a few hours later.
“We hear on television that Libya is secure, but after what I have seen, there is no security. How is this possible? There are armed gangs pretending to be revolutionaries,” Ruhuma said.
“This is some kind of jungle law.”
Militias spearheaded the rebellion that ended Gadhafi’s rule. While many have scaled back their activities, gone back to their home towns or merged into national security services, others have yet to lay down their arms.
The lack of an effective national police force and army mean many of the militias have more power on the ground than Libya’s official rulers.
In the last few weeks, Reuters reporters have heard of cases of Libyans taken from their homes or from the street by armed groups. One of Reuters’ Libyan members of staff was briefly detained and beaten following a dispute over a parking space.
“We have received complaints about people being tortured – taken, detained for a few hours,” said Abdel-Baset Ahmad Abumzirig, deputy head of the national council for freedom and human rights.
“Some have been passed on to the police and prosecutor-general and we are following them up. We know that the authorities are weak.”
International campaign groups have identified armed militias as one of the biggest challenges to stability as Libya’s new rulers try to build new institutions and prepare for the first election in a generation on July 7.
In the last month, Tripoli’s international airport was seized by an armed group for several hours. One person was killed and several injured when militiamen protesting outside the prime minister’s office started shooting.
Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour told Reuters the government planned to increase security on the streets and set up more checkpoints to stop people bringing heavy weapons into cities.
“This revolution came to eliminate the era of human rights violations, but unfortunately these incidents have happened, these are crimes,” he said.
On top of the rise in abductions, rights groups say they are concerned about the fate of thousands of people captured by the authorities and militias during and after the uprising.
Human Rights Watch says at least 7,000 are still in detention, citing government officials and the United Nations. Roughly 4,000 of them are held by various militias in both formal and secret detention facilities. The rest are in facilities run by the government.
The U.N. human rights agency and aid groups have accused brigades of torturing detainees, many of them sub-Saharan Africans suspected of fighting for Gadhafi’s forces last year.
Accusations of the mistreatment and disappearances of suspected Gadhafi loyalists are embarrassing for Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council, which had vowed to make a fresh start after Gadhafi.
It is also awkward for the Western powers that backed the rebellion and helped install Libya’s new leaders.
“The government, essentially the police through Ministry of Interior has to develop its capacity to check that. It’s not acceptable of course,” the U.N envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, told Reuters when asked about the abductions.
“I don’t think there’s a problem of will to deal with that, I believe the intentions of those in authority in Libya is one that wants to protect human rights, but more needs to be done.”