Libya’s Judges Confront the Past

Ever since the revolution, Libyans have been waiting to see how the court system is going to settle accounts with Qaddafi-era officials. Now the first verdict has finally arrived — but it clearly wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting. A Libyan court in Tripoli has acquitted two former officials in Colonel Qaddafi’s regime ...

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Ever since the revolution, Libyans have been waiting to see how the court system is going to settle accounts with Qaddafi-era officials. Now the first verdict has finally arrived -- but it clearly wasn't what a lot of people were expecting.

A Libyan court in Tripoli has acquitted two former officials in Colonel Qaddafi's regime of wasting public money by spending $2.7 billion on payments to the families of those killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ex-Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi and Mohamed al-Zwai, the former head of Qaddafi's legislature, stood accused of arranging compensation for the families of victims of the attack. The two men were trying to persuade the survivors to drop their claims against Libya. The prosecution had charged that Obeidi and Zwai were responsible for negotiating settlements with the Lockerbie families and had paid out double the amount originally planned.

Ever since the revolution, Libyans have been waiting to see how the court system is going to settle accounts with Qaddafi-era officials. Now the first verdict has finally arrived — but it clearly wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting.

A Libyan court in Tripoli has acquitted two former officials in Colonel Qaddafi’s regime of wasting public money by spending $2.7 billion on payments to the families of those killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ex-Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi and Mohamed al-Zwai, the former head of Qaddafi’s legislature, stood accused of arranging compensation for the families of victims of the attack. The two men were trying to persuade the survivors to drop their claims against Libya. The prosecution had charged that Obeidi and Zwai were responsible for negotiating settlements with the Lockerbie families and had paid out double the amount originally planned.

This would be the first verdict in a number of cases against key figures in the old Qaddafi regime by the new Libyan government following his killing in 2011. Despite being acquitted in this case, both men will remain in custody while further investigations take place ahead of a wider trial in August, where allegations of war crimes, including mass killings and incitement to rape, will be put to the court, according to state prosecutor al-Seddik al-Sur. Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi are among the defendants in this wider trial.

While the families of the two officials celebrated the innocent verdict and expressed their happiness with the Libyan judiciary, the public prosecutor was quick to announce a new trial and took measures to ensure that the two officials will in custody, emphasizing that the Lockerbie-related charges are a "side case." The judge gave no reasons for his verdict after the trial, which lasted seven months. The two officials were tried under Qaddafi-era laws.

Many Libyans are cautiously celebrating what they claim to be "the independence of the judiciary." However, after the court’s verdict some prominent Facebook pages and groups (mainly pro-isolation law and pro-militias) started calling for the cleansing of the judiciary, claiming that the revolution has yet to happen within the judicial establishment in Libya. They claim that the current judicial establishment will find Saif al-Islam and Abdullah al-Senussi innocent, and that the judges affected by the isolation process will hamper the implementation of the isolation law. The fear of attacks on the judiciary and the justice system could explain the quick announcement by the country’s public prosecutor that the two acquitted officials will remain in custody as his office prepares for these broader proceedings.

However, many in Libya called the trial a "waste of time." Claiming that the Saif al-Islam and al-Senussi have yet to stand trial, and that these "side cases" are just used by the authorities to buy them time as they keep delaying the trials of the key crimes committed by the former regime. The general sentiment between Libyans is that the authorities have failed to facilitate or build any substantial cases against many of the ex-regime officials, and that the evidence required to convict them is not available.

The delay in putting ex-regime officials on trial is partly due to the lack of security in Libya in general, and for judges and other justice sector personnel in particular. According to a report produced by the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), "The absence of security for justice sector personnel has led judges and prosecutors to indefinitely delay the processing of detainees."

Lawyers for Justice in Libya expressed concern at the increase in attacks on judges and lawyers in Libya. Most recently, a senior judge from the eastern city of Albaida was shot dead in a drive-by shooting in front of the local courthouse in Derna last Sunday.

Moreover, the legitimacy and independence of the judiciary in Libya is compromised by its lack of autonomy and by interference from the General National Congress (Libya’s interim legislature). Judges throughout Libya have condemned the recent Political Isolation Law, and some have gone on strike because it targets the judiciary. An appeal by more than 60 judges and lawyers against the law has been submitted to the Supreme Court. They argue that the judiciary should be independent and that the isolation law violates the principle of the separation of powers among the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judiciary). The judges stress that any reform within the judicial establishment should come from within, that it should be based on consultation with the legislative and executive branches of government, and that it should not imposed by one or the other.

In post-revolution Libya, the process of judicial institutionalization is constantly undermined by political instability and the lack of security as well as by the struggle for power between the different factions in the absence of the constitution. Ensuring the independence of the judiciary and security of its personnel is of vital importance for Libya’s transition. Ultimately, the absence of security for justice sector personnel has led and will continue to lead to indefinite delays in the processing of the cases of ex-regime officials and conflict-related detainees.

Finally, the Libyan authorities need to ensure the independence of the judiciary and to guarantee the safety of judges and prosecutors so that they can carry out their duties in an impartial and transparent manner and in accordance with international standards. Only then will Libyans trust the judiciary and its effectiveness in upholding the law and serving justices in the country.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.

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