Libyan Trial Shows Judicial Chaos

Published February 15, 2012 8:00PM (EST)

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — One of the first trials for thousands of Libyans detained on suspicion of links to the ousted regime of Moammar Gadhafi is turning into a prime example of how unequipped the country's justice system is to handle the cases.

At a hearing in the eastern city of Benghazi Wednesday, a Gadhafi-era judge in a Gadhafi-era military courtroom planned to hear evidence against 50 people accused of the Gadhafi-era crime of "treason against the revolution."

But the judge postponed the hearing because the militia that has detained the defendants refused to bring them to court.

The case underlines how much power still lies with the hundreds of militias that fought Gadhafi's troops during the eight-month civil war that ended when the longtime dictator was captured and killed last October.

It also indicates how, one year after the start of the anti-Gadhafi uprising, the National Transitional Council now ruling Libya has made little progress in filling the void left by the collapse of Gadhafi's regime with effective state institutions like courts and organized security forces.

The NTC has so far failed to extend its control over the hundreds of militias that fought in the war. Nor has it taken control over the scores of detention centers these groups run for people accused of links to the Gadhafi regime. Human rights groups say these centers hold thousands of people, some of whom have been tortured.

Wednesday's hearing was the second for 50 men detained by a powerful Benghazi militia known as the Feb. 17 Martyrs and accused of having links to Gadhafi's regime. The judge served under Gadhafi before the war but defected to the rebels early in the uprising. Since the NTC has yet to write new laws, the men were being tried under the Gadhafi-era legal code.

The trial's first session, on Feb. 6, was postponed because the defendants didn't have a lawyer. On Wednesday, their lawyer arrived, but the military prosecutor informed the judge that the militia had refused to bring the 47 accused men in its custody to court, citing security reasons.

The defendant's lawyer, Saleh Omran, said the militia has too much power.

"The brigade controls everything in this part of Libya," he said. "If they wish, they can release prisoners or keep them as long as they want."

Three of the accused have been put under house arrest and attended the hearing. One of them, Sherif al-Ashafi, said the militia beat him and tortured him with electric shocks.

The brother of one defendant, Salem Khalifa, said the trial showed that the revolution had failed to achieve the goals of justice and rule of law that Libyan fought Gadhafi for.

"This revolution started against tyranny, but it's like we're still in the jungle," he said outside the courtroom, where about 100 relatives of the accused stood. "The strong ones take the weak ones."

The judge scheduled the next hearing for Feb. 22.

Also Wednesday, the NTC announced a plan to distribute cash to all Libyan families in celebration of the one-year anniversary of the revolution's start. All families will get a lump sum of $1,600 and each single person will get $160, according to statement on the NTC's Facebook page.

"The Libyan people have been going through some tough times and this is just a little help to support them," said spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi.

By Salon Staff

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