Death sentences divide Libya further
TUNIS - The death sentences passed on July 28th against Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader; Abdullah Senussi, the dictator’s intelligence chief; and seven other leading former regime figures came as little surprise. But they have divided Libya even further.
Altogether 37 former regime figures were on trial. In addition to the nine death sentences, 23 of the accused were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to five years in jail, four were freed, and one was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Within hours of the verdicts being announced in the converted courtroom at Hadba prison in Tripoli, the proceedings were condemned by the United Nations’ organisation in Libya and international human rights groups.
The trial had not been free and fair, they said, cataloguing a long list of complaints. Among them were accusations that lawyers had been threatened, were not able to question those who made statements against the accused, and, on several occasions, had not been allowed to see their clients and when they were, not in private.
In Tripoli and in many other places in the country, however, there has been broad but largely uninterested acceptance of the outcome. For most people there are far more serious problems to worry about, such as the electricity cuts that mean no air conditioning in the summer heat.
In the east of the country, the internationally recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk and the government in Beida had already washed their hands of the trial.
Last December, the Justice Ministry said no trials conducted outside its control including that of former regime officials could be regarded as free and fair. On the eve of the verdicts being announced, Justice Minister Al-Mabrouk Ghraira Omran called on the international community not to recognise any verdict issued by the court.
It was seen as no coincidence either that the same day as the verdicts were announced, the House of Representatives voted in favour of an amnesty law for certain crimes committed by Libyans since the February 2011 uprisings. Although murder, kidnapping, terrorism and torture were exceptions, making war on the Libyan people was not among them.
Possibly more important, however, the verdicts appear to have rallied communities in the country that were linked to the old regime.
In the south, the death sentences sparked immediate protests by members of the Qaddadfa tribe and the Magarha tribe, of which Abdullah Senussi is a member. There were also demonstrations in Bani Walid and even, it is reported in Sirte, despite it beign controlled by ISIS.
The Magarha tribe has the power to make life in Tripoli even more miserable than it is now. Two years ago, when Anoud Senussi, Abdullah Senussi’s daughter, was kidnapped in Tripoli, members of the tribe cut off the water supply, demanding her freedom. It worked. She was released.
They may try something like that again. Also sentenced to death was Qaddafi’s former prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. His sentence renewed the controversy in Tunisia over who had authorised his extradition to Libya in June 2012, after his arrest on Tunisian soil.
The extradition took place during the rule in Tunisia of an Islamist-led coalition, which has since left power.
However, over the past few months there has been a growing mood for reconciliation between supporters of the former regime, those in the House of Representatives and the Beida-based government, and more moderate elements within the Libya Dawn alliance, which controls the capital. It has been seen in a number of peace deals between towns in the west of the country as well as between the Misratans and the Warshefana and Magarha tribes, the last two firm Qaddafi supporters during the revolution.
The amnesty decision is both a deliberately timed snub to the court in Tripoli and to those in control of the capital — the General National Congress, the government it appointed and the militias.
It is also an olive branch to those involved with the former regime and adds to the momentum for reconciliation.
Meanwhile, the next stage of the judicial proceedings is unclear. The accused have the right to appeal within 60 days of the verdict.
In the case of Saif al-Islam, however, he cannot be touched at present. He is being held separately in Zintan. He had been present in the court proceedings via video link initially but that stopped some time ago. He was sentenced, as the chief prosecutor at the trial admitted after the verdicts were announced, in absentia and would probably have to be retried if and when the court takes possession of him.
Even if there were no appeals, the High Court has to confirm the sentences, although that decision, as well as any appeals, will be based purely on whether due legal process was followed.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the international human rights groups have said the appeals court must not limit itself to such legalities and has to re-examine all the cases so that the trials can be considered fair and transparent.
Whether that happens will probably depend on who is in power in the capital.