28 Jul 2015

Saif al Islam sentenced to death – but Libyan judicial system is far from fair

The death sentences passed down on eight Gaddafi era officials, including the dictator’s son Saif al Islam, are unlikely to cause much outrage in Libya. In fact, they may be a cause for celebration.

The trial in Tripoli has violated many international standards. It relied on confessions which one of those convicted, former spy chief Abuzeid Dorda, said were extracted by torture.

The prison is controlled by a militia. Saif was tried in absentia because he is held by a rival militia in Zintan, a town to the west of the capital.

But while human rights campaigners believe that all trials should be fair, including those of former dictators and their acolytes who ignored such niceties in their time, the Libyan Revolution has unleashed a desire for revenge not due process.

Abu Salim massacre

The sentence passed on Saif al Islam has attracted the most international attention but for many Libyans, the former dictator’s brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi, is equally important.

He was an intelligence chief and enforcer, the man who made sure Gaddafi’s edicts were carried out whatever the price paid by ordinary Libyans.

He’s most hated for the Abu Salim massacre in 1996 when more than 1000 prisoners were gunned down without mercy.

An eye-witness, Wanise Elisawi, who was watching from the window of his cell, saw Senussi standing by a vehicle at the edge of the prison courtyard, seemingly unwilling to let the soldiers fire.

“When the order came, Senussi started hitting the car and saying ‘No, not killing, not killing,'” Elisawi recalled. “For sure he didn’t want to do it. But he got his orders from elsewhere and he carried them out.”

Senussi was the second most powerful man in the land. Only Gaddafi could give him orders.

Death by firing squad

He’s now condemned to death by firing squad – the irony will not be lost on Libyans, as the victims of the Abu Salim massacre were shot by soldiers positioned on the roof around the prison courtyard.

He was on trial not for that massacre but for ordering the killing of demonstrators in Benghazi at the beginning of the revolution in 2011.

“They are mostly alcoholics and drug addicts,” he said at a meeting of local officials as he encouraged the security forces to put down protests without mercy.

The Libyan Revolution heralded a period of lawlessness and anarchy. A facade of justice has been on display – judges, a variety of verdicts, a process of sorts. But in the end, it is the guillotine.

And, like the French Revolution, it may be decades, even a century, before revolution turns to anything like a democratic system with the rule of law.

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