TRIPOLI: The son of late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi appeared via video-link Sunday with 22 others to hear charges in a Tripoli court ranging from war crimes to corruption in a major test of whether the state can implement the rule of law.
Seif al-Islam, the most high-profile of Gadhafi’s seven sons, smiled and looked confident on the link-up from a jail in the western town of Zintan where he has been held since he was captured by former rebels.
The rebels refuse to hand Seif al-Islam over, saying they do not trust the government to ensure he won’t escape, but have agreed to have him tried in a government court.
Twenty-two former Gadhafi officials were present in the court inside the heavily guarded Al-Hadba prison, including former spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi. Eight others joined via videolink from the western city of Misrata.
The judge took about 20 minutes to read out the charges, accusing the defendants of giving orders to arm militias and kill peaceful protesters and locking up thousands of political opponents. They are also charged with ordering power cuts to rebel-held cities and damaging oil facilities during the eight-month uprising against Gadhafi in 2011.
Libya has struggled to establish basic institutions and the rule of law since Gadhafi’s four-decade one-man rule ended in 2011, with brigades of militias and former rebels challenging the authority of the weak central government.
The International Criminal Court and other human rights groups worry about the fairness of Libya’s justice system although the government won the right last year to try Gadhafi’s former spy chief at home instead of at the ICC in The Hague.
When the judge asked Seif al-Islam, once seen as Gadhafi’s heir, whether he had a lawyer present to defend him he said twice: “It’s with God.” The court later decided to appoint a lawyer for him.
If convicted, some of the defendants could face the death penalty. It was not clear how – or if – the rebels would execute such a verdict.
Several defendants, including Senussi, complained they had not been given enough access to lawyers. “I want a non-Libyan lawyer,” said the once corpulent Senussi, who appeared to have shrunk after more than a year in prison. “I want justice.”
In a new sign of growing influence of Islamists since Gadhafi’s fall, officials allowed female reporters into the courthouse only after they had put on a headscarf as sign of modesty.
Tripoli has been mostly spared rampant crime in other parts of the country. But gunmen Sunday attacked a van belonging to a commercial bank with rocket-propelled grenades, robbing $5 million and snatching two employees.