In the midst of Bangladesh's battle against the novel coronavirus, which keeps intensifying, the news came as a shock on Thursday, May 28. The family of a Libyan human trafficker had killed 30 migrants and injured 12 others in revenge for his death the previous day, Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) said in a simple statement that was thin on details except that those killed comprised 26 Bangladeshi and four African migrants, and they had been killed in the town of Mizda, about 180 kilometres from Tripoli.

That same night, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen and Bangladesh Ambassador to Libya Sk Sekander Ali confirmed the incident to our sister newsagency UNB. Different international media also reported the incident claiming that the family of a Libyan trafficker killed 30 migrants in revenge for his death.

"Of the injured, 11 are out of danger and they have been moved to Tripoli Medical Centre," Sk Sekander Ali told UNB. The Embassy came to know about the incident over phone from one of the Bangladeshi survivors who took shelter in a Libyan family after the incident.

"We are trying to get details. Officials from our mission will visit the hospital," said Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen.

Libya has long been a destination for migrants because of its oil-funded economy, but is also an important way-station for people attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

"We have just learned of this tragedy and are following up to get more details and provide assistance to survivors," said Safa Msehli, Libya spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration.

The slain migrants had been abducted while crossing the country in search of work and then tortured to extract a ransom, Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry said the next day, citing a survivor.

"They tortured them inhumanely for a ransom. At some point in their ordeal the captives killed the main kidnapper. In retaliation, the militia fired indiscriminately at them," it added in a statement.

The GNA, which is based in Tripoli (the country is mired in a civil war that has led to two administrations with competing claims to being the legitimate government of Libya), said it had issued arrest warrants for suspects. GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said authorities were doing all they could to find the perpetrators. A local official in Mizda, speaking anonymously, said security forces there had not detained them because they had lost a family member. Mizda is under the control of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) but not far from areas held by the GNA.

The International Organisation for Migration said the incident took place in a smuggling warehouse where a group of migrants was being held. "These criminal groups are taking advantage of the instability and security situation to prey on desperate people," said IOM Libya chief Federico Soda.

Bangladesh had communicated with the IOM to bring back the bodies of the 26 people who were killed and sought compensation for their families. This did not happen however and eventually all of them had to be buried in Mizda. Dr Momen said the Libyan Interior Ministry had ordered arrest and punishment of the killers but there is no effective administration of the Tripoli government in the area where the Bangladesh citizens were killed.

Bangladesh has also sought information on the human traffickers and demanded punishment of those involved in human trafficking and killing after their arrest.

The Foreign Minister said they cannot rule out the possibility of more such incidents if the human traffickers remain active. "The fear is that traffickers remain active."

He said the government and Bangladesh Mission in Libya are trying to know from which districts the Bangladesh citizens went to Libya and through which channel and who encouraged them to fall into trap. Dr Momen urged the young people of the country not to take such risk as human traffickers remain active.

He said the traffickers might have planned to send those Bangladeshi people to Italy through risky boat journeys.

The Foreign Minister said the people might have reached Libya three months ago by spending 8-10,000 US dollars each. Bangladesh Mission in Libya will send a report soon to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about steps taken by the Libyan government and information about the human traffickers.

War is still going on between two strong groups in Mizdah town and the Tripoli government took control over the town just a few days back. Most of the countries shifted their Missions to Tunisia but only three countries including Bangladesh are continuing operations from Tripoli, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Embassy is providing support to Bangladesh citizens amid this adverse situation, it said.

The Foreign Ministry said the government is against all kind of trafficking and the government has taken various steps to halt human trafficking. Bangladesh said the international community needs to work jointly to uproot human trafficking though there has been much progress in Bangladesh amid various efforts.

Libya is home to a large number of migrants, including some who came to work in the major oil exporting nation before its descent into civil war, and others hoping to use it as a way station on the journey to Europe. Migrants fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East typically pass through Libya on their way to Europe, departing Tripoli's rocky coast in inflatable dinghies.

The Libyan coast guard, trained by the EU to keep migrants from reaching European shores, intercepts boats at sea and returns them to Libya, where many migrants land in detention centers rife with torture and abuse.

The number of those fleeing Libya's conflict has sharply risen in recent weeks, according to the U.N. migration agency, as the battle for control of the capital intensifies. In the past week alone, nearly 700 migrants were stopped and returned to detention facilities.

Militias loosely allied with the Tripoli government have been defending the country's capital from a year-long offensive by eastern-based forces trying to capture it.

Stories of the dead

A few days after the incident, Bangladesh released names of 23 out of 26 Bangladeshi citizens killed in an attack by human traffickers in Libya on Thursday. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs with information from Bangladesh Embassy in Tripoli also provided the identities of the injured.

The 23 deceased are -- Sujan and Kamrul from Gopalganj; Jakir Hossain, Jewel, Firuz, Jewel-2, Manik, Asadul, Aynal Mollah, Monir, Sajib, Shaheen, and Shamim from Madaripur; Arfan from Dhaka; Lal Chand from Magura; Rajon, Rahim, Shakil, Sakib, Akash, Shohag and Muhammad Ali from Kishoreganj; and Rakibul from Jashore.

Besides, the injured citizens are -- Firoz Bepari from Madaripur Sadar; Md Sajid from Bhanga upazila of Faridpur; Md Janu Mia, Md Sajal Mia and Md Shohag Ahmed from Bhairab upazila of Kishoreganj; Omar Sheikh from Muksudpur of Gopalganj; Md Torikul Islam from Magura; Md Bokul Hossain from Alamdanga upazila of Chuadanga; Md Ali and Md Samrat Khalasi and Sayedul Islam from Madaripur; and Bappi from Chuadanga.

Human traffickers demanded 12,000 US dollar as ransom from the family of Rakibul, one of the 26 ill-fated Bangladeshis who lost their lives in a gun attack in Libya.

Rakibul Islam, 23, son of Ismail Hossain of Khatbaria village in Shangkarpur union of Jhikargachha upazila in Jashore district, went to Libya on February 15, said his elder brother Sohel Rana.

"Then, he got a job in an oil company in Bengazi. After two months, he gave Tk 70,000 to Bangladeshi human trafficker Abdullah to go Libya's capital Tripoli and started his journey for Tripoli on May 15," he said.

Later, Rakibul along with several other Bangladesh nationals was abducted by human traffickers including some Bangladeshi traffickers in Mizda. The human trafficking gang demanded 12,000 USD on May 18 over phone from Sohel.

When Sohel agreed to pay the ransom, they asked him to send the money to Dubai. But when he wanted to pay in Bangladesh, the kidnappers refused and repeatedly pressurized him to send dollars to Dubai, he said.

Sohel also said that there were at least 4-5 Bangladeshis in the gang.

The family members of three victims of the gun attack from Madaripur who were killed in the gun attack, filed the cases with Rajoir and Sadar Police Station under the Human Trafficking Act on Sunday night.

Shawkat Zahan, officer-in-charge of Rajoir Police Station, said two separate cases were filed over the Libya gun attack that claimed the lives of 26 Bangladeshi nationals. Most of the victims hailed from Madaripur district.

Catching the perpetrators

Razzak Hawladar, father of the deceased Jewel, filed a case against four people - including an alleged member of the human trafficking gang in Madaripur, while Syed Khalashi, brother of deceased Rahim Khalashi, filed another case against seven people including the same alleged Bangladeshi member of the gang - Julhash Sheikh, son of Majid Sheikh of Madaripur.

Locals attacked Julhash's home in Madaripur the day after news of the macabre killings broke last Thursday, but police rushed to the spot and took Julhash to the relative safety of the coronavirus isolation ward at Madaripur Sadar Hospital, on the pretext of COVID-19 symptoms.

He has since apparently been diagnosed with the disease.

Quamrul Islam, officer-in-charge of Sadar Police Station, said Abdul Halim Mia, father of the victim Mohammad Shamim of Dudhkhali union, filed the case against three people.

Police arrested two people, including Dina Begum, the wife of another broker, Nazrul Islam, in this connection on Sunday night.

The parents of murdered Jewel Hawladar said, "My son went to Libya three to four months back through the human trafficking gang in exchange of Tk 3-4 lakh. But they tortured him after confining him in Benghazi city. Later, the gang demanded Tk 10 lakh more from them and sent a recording of my son's voice asking for the ransom money. We even gave the money to broker Julhash but they killed my son."

Shah Alam Hawladar, father of Manik Hawladar, said "I gave Tk 4 lakh to Julhash but they demanded Tk 10 lakh more. To bring my son back I gave them Tk 10 lakh."

Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) members arrested the ringleader of a human trafficking gang from Khilbarirtek of Shahadatpur area in the city on June 1. The arrestee was identified as Kamal Hossain alias Hazi Kamal, 55.

Based on secret information, a team of Rab-3 battalion conducted a drive at Khilbarirtek of Boroitola Bazar at Shahadatpur around 5:00 am and arrested Hazi Kamal. Briefing reporters at the Rab-3 Tikatoli battalion headquarters in the afternoon, its Commanding Officer (CO) Rafibul Hasan said arrested Hazi Kamal is a tiles contractor.

As a number of tiles workers work under him, he used to allure them to send them to Libya and different Middle East countries where they can earn more money.

"He used to tell the tiles labors that they do not need to pay Tk 5-6 lakh at a time, they will only pay Tk 50,000- Tk 100,000 first and then they will pay the rest amount after reaching their destinations," the Rab-3 CO said quoting Hazi Kamal.

"After selecting a group 10-15 people, the human traffickers send them to Libya using routes-- Dhaka-Kolkata-Mumbai-Dubai and then Benghazi of Libya. It needec 10-15 days to reach Libya, "he said.

When the would-be migrants reached Libya, the human traffickers used to collect money from the victims' family members in Bangladesh keeping them hostage, Lt Col Rakibul Hasan said.There were some victims among the 26 Bangladeshis whom Kamal had sent, he said.

Sources at the Rab-3 battalion headquarters said most of the victims in Libya hailed from Madaripur, Faridpur, Kishoregnj and Magura districts. A Rab Intelligence team has already found information about several human trafficking syndicateswho were involved in sending people to Libya illegally. Hazi Kamal was involved in sending around 400 Bangladeshis to Libya illegally in the last 10-12 years.

The GNA strongly condemned the killing of Bangladesh citizens in Libya and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed the killing "cowardly act" and conveyed deep sympathy to the families of the victims and the government of Bangladesh.

In a condolence message, the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the steps taken by the Libyan government will be shared with the families of the victims and the government of Bangladesh. Two days later, on June 3, it was learned that warlord Khalifa Haftar's militiaman Khaled Al-Mishai, allegedly responsible for the killing of 26 Bangladeshis and four African migrants in Mizda town, was killed in a drone strike by the Libyan Air Force.

Libyan English daily The Libya Observer made the announcement in a tweet, but no other details were immediately available. Despite the news, a thorough investigation, involving both Bangladeshi and Libyan authorities, is particularly important to end the illegal trafficking of cheap labour. The murders have undeniably exposed the possibility of an international trafficking ring that runs both in Bangladesh and Libya and perhaps in some other countries. Traffickers in origin and destination countries are reported to have links in government offices that manage or forge paperwork for the migrants. That most of the murder victims have left Bangladesh early this year, when there has been a ban on travel to Libya for 5 years now, indicates complicity of authorities on every stop of the travel route. They reveal an international system already in turmoil caused by the pandemic, in its worst light.

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