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Saif Gaddafi's Trial in Libya Is Victor's Justice

Posted: 21/09/2013 00:00

On 20 October it will be two years since the death of Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, a mere colonel in the Libyan army but "Brother Leader" of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya - a man who wielded more power than anyone else in Libya for a time-defying 42 years.

After decades spent strutting the North African stage in a variety of costumes, Gaddafi's demise when it came was ghastly in the extreme. Stabbed and possibly anally raped with a knife, he appears to have been tortured and injured multiple times, with some of the abuse captured on a mobile phone's videocam. Whatever crimes this man had been responsible for (and they were surely considerable), this was a savage end. The roughest of rough justice culminating in a squalid extra-judicial execution.

Cut to the present: Muammar's favourite son Saif al-Islam is about to go on trial for a string of alleged offences (including war crimes) along with 37 others. Pre-trial proceedings began in Tripoli this week.

The extravagant cruelty is obviously absent but is the trial of Saif and Co at least likely to be a fair process, the respectable flip-side to the shabby killing of Saif's father? Sadly, no, not really. For one thing, the trial is the product of go-it-alone justice, with the Libyan authorities ignoring repeated pleas from the International Criminal Court to transfer the case to The Hague (since 2011 Saif and the former head of Libyan intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi have been the subject of an ICC indictment). Another sign of the case's waywardness is the fact that Saif is being held in a secret location in the western Libyan town of Zintan, apparently by the same armed group that captured him in November 2011. It's difficult to ascertain what kind of access to lawyers he's had (even the central authorities in Tripoli have been rebuffed over trying to get Saif transferred to them), but certainly Senussi recently told an Amnesty researcher that he has yet to see a lawyer after a full year in custody.

None of this bodes well if you're interest is in seeing a full and fair trial of Saif and his co-accused. The wider context is equally worrying. There are numerous reports of militia groups in Libya directly threatening judges, lawyers and prosecutors. Meanwhile some 8,000 detainees languish behind bars on charges related to the 2011 conflict, and many of these still haven't seen a lawyer (though quite a few have seen the jail's interrogator/torturer). Everywhere you look Libyan justice is in bad shape. Just last week there was the case of Moad al-Hnesh, the 34-year-old former Coventry University student facing a possible life sentence for the supposed "crime" of acting against the interests of the Libyan state whilst abroad (he attended a Stop The War demo in London in 2011). The week before we had the daughter of Senussi - Anoud - farcically kidnapped by an Interior Ministry-affiliated security brigade minutes after she was released from prison.

My guess is that Saif Gaddafi's trial isn't likely to be a lot worse than your average case in present-day Libya (it may even be somewhat fairer), but it's still likely to be a hole-in-the-wall affair compared to the carefully-handled one Libya needs. There's already a strong suspicion that we are about to see yet another example of second-rate victor's justice in Libya (shades of Saddam Hussein's unimpressive trials in Iraq in 2004-6).

Had the democracy protests - followed by the crackdown, the armed uprising and the international intervention - not happened in Libya two and half years ago, it's a fair bet that a 71-year-old Gaddafi senior would still be holding court in Tripoli, and Saif would still be telling an international audience that Libya was keen to "reform" the country (for sure, Libya's jails may have told a different story). Indeed the LSE-educated Saif, Colonel Gaddafi's heir apparent in this supposedly "revolutionary", anti-imperial country, was very likely being groomed to follow his father into power - another instance of what Hugh Roberts sees as the Middle East/North African family-dynasty succession syndrome. It's been a Shakespearean fall from grace for Saif, but his trial is unlikely to prove much of a legal masterpiece.

 
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