Libya death sentences cast long shadow over rule of law

Abdullah al-Senussi Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Former spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi was one of Col Gaddafi's closest confidants

In July, a court in Tripoli ruled against more than 30 officials and personalities who had served under Col Muammar Gaddafi's government. The rulings included nine death-penalty verdicts, four acquittals and a range of other prison sentences for war crimes.

Those condemned to death by firing squad include Col Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and former chief of military intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi, a figure who was once feared by Libyans on an almost mythical level - arguably for good reason.

The International Criminal Court also wanted Mr Gaddafi and Mr Senussi for alleged war crimes during the 2011 revolution that ended the colonel's 42-year rule.

Successive Libyan governments insisted on prosecuting these men on home soil.

They believed they could show the world a fair trial could be conducted.

Perhaps, this was a cardinal mistake.

Transitional justice is a complicated affair often emotionally charged.

This was complicated even further in Libya because it transitioned from one war to another.

Today, Libya is not secure - for anyone.

'Miscarriage of justice'

If nothing else, the verdicts illustrate the difficulties in conducting fair trials in a country ruled by militias, driven by revenge, and void of any effective central government.

This is a key issue that tainted the proceedings from the start.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Col Gaddafi died from bullet wounds sustained during his capture in October 2011

This trial had no witnesses brought forward, and no evidence presented or debated in court.

When they were not too busy demanding access to their clients, which was often a difficult feat, defence lawyers constantly feared for their lives.

One was even shot in the leg.

Former Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani, who was in power when the trial began, told me: "It is a miscarriage of justice that will haunt Libya for a long time."

He said Libyans had been "deprived of finding out the truth in a fair trial to judge an era of severe tyranny".

So what do these verdicts mean?

Few things are straightforward in Libya - including court verdicts.

The charges on which the death penalty was based were not clarified point-by-point.

The silence of Western nations has been deafening.

The absence of official reaction from them creates room for many theories to be entertained by some observers.

Do these men know too much?

The nine Gaddafi men sentenced to death

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Media captionSaif al-Islam Gaddafi: The rise and fall
  • Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the colonel's son and right-hand man
  • Abdullah al-Senussi, chief of military intelligence
  • Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, former Prime Minister
  • Mansour Daw, security chief
  • Abuzeid Dorda, head of foreign intelligence
  • Milad Salem Daman, head of internal security agency
  • Brig Gen Mondher Mukhtar al-Gheneimi
  • Abdul Hamid Ammar Waheda, Senussi aide
  • Awidaat Ghandour al-Noubi, responsible for Col Gaddafi's revolutionary committees in Tripoli

Perhaps it would be more convenient for countries such as France and the UK if these men were executed.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of accepting funding from Col Gaddafi for one of his campaigns. It is an allegation Mr Sarkozy vehemently denies.

Are parts of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's dealings with Col Gaddafi better left uncovered?

It was within the confines of intelligence headquarters in Tripoli that documents were uncovered in 2011 showing Britain's co-operation with Libya in so-called counter-terrorism measures.

This included the rendition of suspected Islamists to Libya and allowing dissidents in the UK to be harassed by Col Gaddafi's henchmen.

The list of potentially incriminating or embarrassing scenarios is long.

One Western diplomat privately suggested the absence of official reactions from several countries might have boiled down to semantics.

I am told no-one wanted to say anything that could be construed as a pro- or anti-Gaddafi statement.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi is among those sentenced to death by firing squad

Awaiting confirmation

But in a world of abundant kneejerk reactions by foreign governments to all things Libya, the silence is peculiar.

The death sentences still need to be confirmed by the Supreme Court.

"They might execute them in two months' time," Mehdi Bouaouaja, the Tunisian lawyer for Libya's former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, insisted to me.

Mr Bouaouaja's client is among the nine men sentenced to death.

Mr Bouaouaja also alleged they had "evidence" the verdicts had been discussed and "decided" on a senior level between two parliamentarians and a judicial official in Tripoli days before they had been made public.

This could not be verified.

Libya's rival power bases

Libya's current state of rival parliaments and governments based on either side of the country has raised questions over political motivations for the sudden acceleration in the trial.

Mr Marghani believes on both sides of the divide, the Libyan judiciary is "struggling to remain impartial in conflict zones" and "sinking further into politics".

How the recent ruling came about paves the way for many more of its kind based on the same process.

It also fuels distrust in the judiciary, which can lead to people believing that justice is better served at their own hands - it is a vicious cycle and a dangerous path to tread.

Four years ago, I watched men and women weep at the prospect of change when Col Gaddafi's rule ended. Justice, in his era, was as rare as a solar eclipse.

But the shadow being cast over the rule of law today is bigger.

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