While rival governments in Libya are locked in civil conflict, commanding most domestic and international attention, trials are moving forward in Tripoli for former high-ranking figures from the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. This month, proceedings continued against Saadi al-Qaddafi, and lawyers submitted the final defense for Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and 36 other Qaddafi-era officials, all of whom face charges of war crimes against the Libyan people during the 2011 uprising. Although the Head of Investigations for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Sadiq al-Sour, insists the trials in Tripoli are “independent and not affected by war,” adding that “the judiciary is completely independent, regardless of the executive authority in the country,” issues surround the judicial proceedings. 

Local and international interest in the trials of Qaddafi-era figures has waned amid ongoing issues regarding transparency, access, and legal representation.Former regime officials wait for court proceedings to start at their January 25 hearing. Photo by Tom Westcott

Furthermore, although a final verdict is expected on July 28 for Saif al-Islam and the other officials, this will likely have no direct impact on the negotiations between Tripoli and Tobruk or contribute meaningfully to the transitional justice process. After the trial of the regime figures resumed in Tripoli, the Ministry of Justice in Baida issued a statement declaring: “No impartial and independent judgement can be issued at gunpoint under illegitimate militias,” and effectively washing its hands of any responsibility for legal proceedings taking place in Tripoli, opposing both the legal institutions and their practices.

On May 10, proceedings started against Qaddafi’s third son, Saadi, famed for his love of football and indulgent, playboy lifestyle. Saadi is charged with several pre-revolution crimes, including the murder of Libyan football player and coach Bashir al-Rayani in 2006. Although an investigation was launched into Rayani’s “unnatural death,” the initial proceedings fizzled out. If found guilty of murder, Saadi could face the death penalty—unless Rayani’s closest living relative forgives him, in which case the court would give him a life sentence. In addition, Saadi faces at least seven other charges of assault, kidnapping, and violence from before the revolution, and he is also accused of the revolution-era crimes of distributing land mines, arming pro-Qaddafi militias, and bringing foreign mercenaries into Libya.1 Further crimes are still under investigation but could be completed by the next hearing, scheduled for July 19.

The low-profile hearing contrasted starkly with Saadi’s high-profile extradition to Libya from Niger in March 2014, when images of him wearing a blue prison uniform and having his head and beard shaved in Hadba Prison were widely circulated on social media sites. Furthermore, since his extradition Saadi has not been interviewed by any international human rights organizations. In October last year, United Nations representatives visited Tripoli’s Hadba Prison but were denied private access to Saadi. Nor is there public access to the trials, which take place in a purpose-built courtroom inside Hadba Prison. International trial observers rely on often incomplete televised footage, and the few western journalists who have tried to follow the trials in Tripoli have struggled to gain regular entry.

The issue of access is even more pronounced in the case of Saadi’s older brother Saif al-Islam, the only other member of the Qaddafi family who was arrested and put on trial. Since his capture in 2011, he has been held in the mountain town of Zintan in western Libya. He is currently being tried in absentia by the Tripoli-based General Prosecution for war crimes committed against the Libyan people during the revolution. But although he made initial court appearances via live video-link from Zintan, these appearances stopped last summer after civil war broke out in Tripoli between rival armed groups from Zintan and Misrata, both of which maintained a strong presence in the capital after the revolution. “He is still in Zintan, and there are communications between us and the General Prosecution in Zintan, and his photos have been circulated on social media,” Sadeq al-Sour asserted. “Due to the security situation and crisis of the country, we can’t bring him here [to Tripoli] now.” But the Tripoli-based Minister of Justice, Mustafa al-Glaib, admitted “nobody knows” for sure where Saif al-Islam is—or whether he is still alive. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed concern that he has not been seen or heard from since a video-link court appearance last year.2 Meanwhile, the Saif al-Islam case remains at the center of a dispute between Libya and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which issued an arrest warrant for him in May 2011 and has issued a court order to extradite him to The Hague, which Libya has disputed. 

Local and international interest in the trials of Qaddafi-era figures has waned amid ongoing issues regarding transparency, access, and legal representation.At hearings on April 27, 2014, three screens in room for journalists adjacent to the Hadba Prison Courtroom showed Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, defendants then held in a Misrata jail, and the defendants in Tripoli. This room is now unused, with few journalists attending. Photo by Tom Westcott

Lawyers also presented the final defense for 36 regime-era officials, including former intelligence chiefs Abdallah al-Senussi and Abuzeid Dorda, on May 20, in front of their 21 lawyers, 16 relatives, and a handful of journalists. Only 28 of the 37 defendants, held in a cage in courtroom, were present. Four are no longer in prison, after being released to receive medical treatment but, Al-Sour insisted, were expected to attend for the verdict and sentencing, apart from one man now permanently confined to a psychiatric hospital. During the course of the trial several defendants have stood up in court and said they were being tortured. Al-Sour dismissed such claims, saying that since they had been under the jurisdiction of the General Prosecutor’s Office, no defendants had suffered any sort of duress. However, reports from human rights organizations and journalists suggest that neither the General Prosecutor’s office nor the Ministry of Justice necessarily have full control over Hadba Prison. Amnesty International noted in 2014 that: “Access to the compound is controlled by prison officials that appear to answer to the Ministry of Justice only nominally.” It also said that former prisoners from the old regime were amongst those running the Hadba facility, some of whom had been unlawfully rendered to Libya by the United States and held in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim Prison.

Local and international interest in the trials of Qaddafi-era figures has waned amid ongoing issues regarding transparency, access, and legal representation.The Hadba Prison courtroom, purpose-built for the trial of officials from the former regime. A text from the Quran relating to justice hangs on the wall behind where the judges will sit. Photo by Tom Westcott

A final verdict for these officials is expected at the next hearing on July 28. (A verdict will also be given for Saif al-Islam in absentia, but if and when he reappears, he will have to be retried in person.) The trials should have represented a significant step forward on Libya’s road to post-revolutionary justice, but public interest has waned. As post-revolutionary Libya has unraveled, for many ordinary Libyan citizens, dreams of justice and freedom that fueled the revolution have been replaced with a longing for peace, security, and stability. Furthermore, the lack of public access to the trials, the sometimes irregular hearings, and intermittent televised coverage has made them hard to follow. 

With the exodus of western embassies and most of the international community from Tripoli after the arrival of Libya Dawn, the military operation that has become synonymous with the Tripoli government, international interest has also faded. Some international observers and organizations have voiced concerns about Libya’s fledgling “free and fair” justice system. Hanan Salah, Libya Researcher for HRW, cautioned, “While accountability for serious crimes, especially those committed by the former Gaddafi regime, is essential for Libyans to move forward, it cannot come at the cost of the most basic due process rights,” particularly the defendants’ lack of access to legal representation. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) concurred, stating, “If the trial continues to proceed in this way, it will not meet international standards. It will also constitute a missed historical opportunity to publicly disclose and scrutinize crimes committed under the former regime.” Yet the continued limited access international observers have to the trials hinders any more substantial or widespread response to these concerns. 

And while the General Prosecution presses on with this trial for war crimes dating back to the 2011 uprising, some Libyan citizens are more concerned with justice and accountability for crimes committed since 2011. “I think more people have been killed since the revolution than were killed during it,” said 24-year-old medical student Ahmed, citing the hundreds of assassinations in the east of Libya for which no one was brought to justice and the ongoing civil conflict on multiple front lines across the country. “But I am worried about the future because, from what I see, nothing is fair in Libya, and there is no justice.”

Tom Westcott is a Libya-based British journalist and writer.

1. Based on author's interview with Sadiq al-Sour
2. Based on author's interview with Hanan Salah