Libyan dilemma over justice for Gaddafi era

A woman reads a copy of the newly-issued daily newspaper Arus al-Bahr in Tripoli, 8 September 2011
Image caption Transitional authorities have announced a bounty for Col Gaddafi's killing or capture

After 42 years without an independent legal system, Libyans are trying to work out how to deal with their toppled leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, his former henchmen, and many other beneficiaries of his regime.

This is a country wrought by decades of lawlessness, which many think has only been reinforced by the judiciary.

Libyans often opted to resolve matters on their own terms - amicably or vengefully - when seeking justice, rather than rely on the courts they grew to disdain.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months of the changes to come, central to which is building a "country of law", as interim leaders have reiterated countless of times.

Any future justice system in Libya is likely to be one of the busiest fields in the country if some Libyans have it their way.

Amongst friends and families, the debate over who should or should not be brought to trial in the short-term is a hot one.

Yusef Serrag, a 38-year-old entrepreneur is eagerly waiting for a long list of personalities, politicians, and businessmen to answer for their past.

"They all had a choice," he says. "They all need to be held accountable for any offences… even those who have no blood on their hands.

"Corruption robbed people like me of the opportunity to expand in business. Some wealthy families have only now tried to make amends with financial contributions for humanitarian aid.

"It is not about what you do now, it's about what you did in the last 42 years."

Held without charge

Not all of the capital's residents are imagining justice through the courts.

Image caption In public there have been appeals against vengeance

There is no visible trace of the ex-leader's die-hard loyalists in Tripoli these days.

Many have been rounded up by the rebels for interrogation and are now in detention centres, without legal representation or any formal charges.

Others - particularly the members of Col Gaddafi's reviled revolutionary committee movement - have been interrogated and allowed to return home, often to neighbourhoods from which they likely feel ostracised, with neighbours who now feel they have the upper hand.

Though many will argue against revenge killings, what is said in private does not always reflect what some Libyans here are telling the world media.

"I think they should all be executed [without trial]," says Amin, a local businessman, when speaking of the "the fifth column" - a favoured term to describe remnants of the regime's loyalists.

He is not the only one to hold such views of the people Libyans have feared for decades.

As for Col Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, both are wanted for alleged war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) - but locals are unlikely to back a trial in an overseas tribunal.

Image caption Libyans are suddenly free to vent their views about their former ruler

In late August, interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil echoed a similar view.

"The crimes that Gaddafi committed against his people locally before 17 February are enough to bring him to trial for any other crimes he committed after 17 February," he said.

"Libya has not signed the Rome agreement and the ICC's justice is a complementary justice, as the local judicial system is the one responsible for this."

A week later, transitional authorities announced a bounty for Col Gaddafi, captured or killed.

'We smell freedom'

In downtown Tripoli three Libyan women cheerfully point to the festive scenes unfolding in front of them, like the corner where locals are clamouring to buy revolutionary memorabilia.

"For the first time since we were born, we smell freedom," said one of them, a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Oum Ahmad.

"We were born in Gaddafi's era of course. So God-willing, they will capture [Gaddafi] so they can hang him here in the square - him and his sons," she said as she pointed to the recently renamed Martyrs' Square.

"Right there, in the middle," she added thoughtfully.

Libya is no stranger to public executions. Many of the regime's opponents in the late 1970s and 1980s were hanged from the gallows, often in front of a horrified public audience that could do little but watch.

"[Gaddafi] is a tyrant," says Fathi Al-Trekki, another bystander. "He must be tried by Libyans here… he was OUR dictator, he made US suffer and he robbed us of everything. Look at how the country is in ruins."

Time and again Col Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam have insisted that they would fight to the death or die in their country.

There appears to be no shortage of Libyans who are willing to accommodate that.

Libya is at a dangerous crossroads, torn between memories of the iron rule and shattered lives of the old regime and the need to establish the rule of law for the future.

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