By Ayman al-Warfalli
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A Libyan coastguard commander sanctioned by the United Nations for alleged human trafficking and migrant smuggling said he hits migrants but does so for their own safety to prevent them from capsizing.
Abdalrahman al-Milad, who heads a coastguard unit in Zawiya, just west of Tripoli, was one of six people sanctioned for involvement in people trafficking or smuggling in Libya on June 7, in the first move of its kind.
The sanctions freeze bank accounts of those listed and ban them from traveling internationally, and are an attempt to crack down on smuggling networks that have sent hundreds of thousands of migrants on a risky voyage across the Mediterranean.
The U.N. Security Council said Milad’s unit was “consistently linked with violence against migrants and other human smugglers” and cited claims by a U.N. panel of experts that he and other coastguard members were “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”.
It also listed witness testimony from migrants who said they were brought on one of the ships used by Milad to a detention center where they were reportedly held in brutal conditions and beaten.
Speaking to Reuters in a phone interview, Milad denied any wrongdoing or involvement in smuggling and said he was prepared to hand himself over to international authorities if granted a fair trial.
“I reject these accusations,” said Milad, also known as al-Bija. “The Security Council has categorized me as a criminal without any evidence.”
“They accused me of striking migrants. Yes I strike migrants and this is so they sit correctly and don’t move about. There is another migrant sitting next to him and the slightest movement can overturn the boat or make a hole and then they all drown.”
“Regarding me carrying out human smuggling, this is not true … I am a legitimate officer in the navy and the only coastguard unit that has been working since 2014.”
“I have never fired a bullet at migrants.” Milad did not address the allegation that migrants were mistreated at a detention center.
Libya has two coastguards, one that is part of the navy and patrols at sea, and one that is under the interior ministry and operates along the coast. The navy has routinely denied accusations that its coastguard members abuse migrants.
Milad provided pictures of himself in camouflage uniform in the cabin of a boat and giving instructions to his men. He said he had been active in preventing illegal fishing and blocked fuel and scrap metal smuggling.
Migrant smugglers have been able to make vast profits by exploiting a security vacuum in Libya since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Milad said he received a monthly salary of 820 dinars, equivalent to $600 at the official rate, or just $120 at the black market rate. He said his 30-40 men sometimes made “mistakes”, but he could not always be held responsible. He blamed his rivals for smuggling migrants.
The number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy has dropped sharply from last July, when smuggling from the city of Sabratha, about 20 km (12 miles) west of Zawiya, was disrupted. But there are still frequent departures and deaths.
Libya’s coastguard, which has received boats, equipment and training from Italy and the European Union, has become more active, intercepting more migrants and bringing them back to Libya. Milad said his unit had received a boat and some of his men had undergone training.
One of those sanctioned along with Milad was Mohammed Kachlaf, Milad’s cousin and head of a guard unit at Zawiya’s refinery. The Security Council said Kachlaf was suspected of providing cover for Milad’s alleged migrant smuggling activity.
Kachlaf has also been accused of fuel smuggling by Libya’s National Oil Corporation, which has called for the sanctions list to be expanded to include other alleged fuel smugglers across Libya. Kachlaf could not immediately be contacted for comment.
(Additional reporting and writing by Aidan Lewis, Editing by William Maclean)