Libya, rendered ungovernable by NATO’s 2011 invasion and the forces unleashed in its wake, has held a trial and passed death sentences on nine of more than 30 members of Muammar al Gaddafi’s government.
Gaddafi assumed power on 1 September 1969 and died in controversial circumstances on 23 August 2011 after the NATO aerial bombardments and other military interventions that caused Gaddafi’s government to unravel with no credible substitute in place. The trial, too, it now appears, is fraught with controversy and has been found to be deeply flawed, as human rights advocacy group Amnesty International said (28 July 2015).
“Today’s convictions of more than 30 al-Gaddafi-era officials, including the imposition of nine death sentences, follow a trial marred with serious flaws that highlight Libya’s inability to administer justice effectively in line with international fair trial standards,” Amnesty International said.
The convictions come amid acute disarray throughout Libya and International Monetary Fund (once again) coming under fire for interfering in the raging conflict between the competing capitals of Tripoli and Tobruk. The trial was conducted by the government in Tripoli, while the government in Tobruk is the one currently recognised internationally.
Among the nine people sentenced to death for war crimes and other offences during the 2011 armed conflict are Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, and the former Head of Military Intelligence, Abdallah al-Senussi. Twenty-three other former officials were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to five years in prison, four people were acquitted, and one was referred for medical treatment and not sentenced.
“Instead of helping to establish the truth and ensuring accountability for serious violations during the 2011 armed conflict, this trial exposes the weakness of a criminal justice system which is hanging on by a thread in a war-torn country with no central authority,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International.
“It’s a case that was always going to test the judiciary, but in the end it has shown the difficulties of delivering justice at a time when the rule of the gun overpowers the rule of law.
“The death sentences – the ultimate human rights violation – add further insult to injury, and should be overturned on appeal.”
It is expected the convictions will be appealed to the cassation chamber of Libya’s Supreme Court. “The rights to a fair trial of those found guilty today require a full, independent and impartial review of the procedures and evidence used against them and the Supreme Court must address the serious allegations of fair trial and human rights violations in this case when it hears the appeal. To do this it must exercise its power to review both the evidence seen at the trial and the trial court’s interpretation of the law.”
Amnesty International has long called for Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi to be surrendered to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has an active arrest warrant in his name.
“The Libyan authorities refused to hand Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi to the ICC to prove they could administer justice nationally. So far they have failed as he has been subjected to a string of violations. He was effectively tried and sentenced in absentia and continues to be held in isolation in a secret location without access to a lawyer,” said Philip Luther.
“The only route to real justice for the victims of serious crimes perpetrated during the 2011 conflict is to surrender Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi to the ICC and ensure fair trials for all detained al-Gaddafi loyalists.”
The trial of the “symbols of the former regime”, as it is known in Libya, ran from 24 March 2014 to 21 May 2015. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, Abdallah al-Senussi and 35 other officials, including former diplomats, ministers and members of security agencies, were charged with a string of offences during the 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict. These include: indiscriminate shelling, incitement to rape, giving orders to open fire at demonstrators, recruiting and arming mercenaries and engaging in acts of vandalism, looting and killing.
The organization believes that many of the 37 defendants have been denied the right to legal counsel, to remain silent, to be promptly informed of the charges against them, to challenge the evidence brought against them, and to be present at trial. In some cases, detainees were held incommunicado and in unofficial detention places for extended periods.
Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, who was held in militia custody in Zintan, and seven other defendants held in Misratah were tried via video link. At times, the poor quality of the satellite link undermined their ability to follow proceedings. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi stopped appearing via video link after the start of the conflict in western Libya last year, which ended in the ousting of Zintan brigades from Tripoli, meaning he was effectively tried in absentia.
Amnesty International says it understands that many defendants were interrogated without having a lawyer present, despite repeated requests and guarantees provided in Libyan law. Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment raised by the defence do not appear to have been duly investigated. Some were assigned lawyers only after the trial had begun, undermining their right to an effective defence.
Many defence lawyers were not able to visit their clients in private in al-Hadba prison, a high security detention facility where the trial was also held. Some dropped the case amid claims that they were threatened, intimidated and harassed.
The prosecution’s case was largely based on evidence obtained from some 240 witness statements though none was called to the court or subjected to cross-examination. By contrast, defence lawyers were only allowed to call two witnesses per defendant and expressed difficulties in calling witnesses due to the security situation.
The trial was held against the backdrop of renewed conflicts, which led to the collapse of central authority and a split of state institutions in mid-2014. Since then, all sides have perpetrated serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, some of which amount to war crimes. The violence has substantially reduced the international community’s ability to monitor the proceedings, and has further weakened the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice of the internationally recognized government based in Tobruk said that it would not recognize the court’s verdict.