Libya urged to probe missing people in town ruled by six brothers and their lions

A mural of Libyan warlord Mohsen al-Kani outside a militia detention centre in Tarhuna, after the town was taken by pro-Tripoli forces last June - AFP
A mural of Libyan warlord Mohsen al-Kani outside a militia detention centre in Tarhuna, after the town was taken by pro-Tripoli forces last June - AFP

Libya's United Nations-backed government was urged on Thursday to investigate the deaths of hundreds of people in a town where a family of exotic animal-owning brothers implemented a years-long reign of terror.

At least 338 residents of Tarhuna, an agricultural town 45 miles southeast of the Libyan capital, were reported missing in the years that a local family called the Kanis controlled the area, according to Tripoli’s Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons.

Since the Kani brothers and their militia were driven from Tarhuna last June, workers have exhumed 120 bodies from 27 mass graves in the town, the authority’s head Kamal al-Siwi told Human Rights Watch.

But the New York-based watchdog said Thursday that Tripoli’s Government of National Accord should do more to identify the victims and pursue accountability against the brothers, who once received GNA support.

"The authorities should act on the grim discovery of mass graves by taking proper steps to identify the bodies and bringing those responsible for abuses to justice," said Hanan Salah, Human Rights Watch's senior Libya researcher.

Following the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, seven brothers from the Kani family exploited Libya’s lawlessness to pursue a decades-old family feud, assassinating relatives who were Gaddafi supporters, the BBC reported.

After the second youngest Kani brother was killed in 2012, the remaining six brothers created a militia to establish a fiefdom around Tarhuna, ruling the town through fear and earning wealth through extortion.

A photo from Tarhuna in 2017 shows uniformed “Kaniyat” militiamen parading through the town with a pair of leashed lions, which were rumoured to feed on the flesh of murdered townspeople.

The militia initially supported the GNA but switched allegiances in 2019 to support eastern-based warlord Khalifa Haftar during his 14-month long campaign to seize Tripoli.

It was during this time that enforced disappearances in Tarhuna peaked, according to HRW, as militiamen struggled to maintain their grip on the town.

By the time Turkey-backed pro-GNA forces halted Gen Haftar’s assault on the capital last year, two more of the brothers had died, likely in a Turkish drone strike. The surviving four Kani brothers and their militia fled to eastern Libya, while the warring parties later signed a ceasefire in October.

Some of the bodies exhumed in Tarhuna show signs of torture, while others were handcuffed. Among the dead are women and children as young as five, HRW said.

“Al-Kanis are ruthless and worked to eliminate anyone that could stand in their way,” one Tarhuna resident whose relative was seized by the militia told HRW, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retribution “For them, if you’re not with them, then you’re against them.”

In November, the United States sanctioned the eldest Kani brother Mohamed and the militia for “the murder of civilians recently discovered in numerous mass graves in Tarhouna, as well as torture, forced disappearances, and displacement of civilians.”