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Final defence presented in trial of Gaddafi-era senior officials

Questions raised about whether Libya trials meet international standards as observers face difficulties monitoring the cases
Former officials of the Gaddafi administration stand trial while in a Tripoli courtroom (MEE/Tom Wescott)

TRIPOLI - Gripping the bars of the cage holding 28 defendants in a Tripoli Courtroom on Wednesday, former head of the Libyan external intelligence agency Abuzeid Dorda pulled himself to a standing position. Both his legs were broken in a fall whilst in custody in 2011 and he cannot stand unaided. 

“I deny all charges,” he began, in an indistinct voice. He was handed a microphone that did not work, then continued: “The charges are fabricated and false and, as I said in the previous session, they are outrageous and I reject all of them.”

The 71-year-old faces a series of allegations relating to revolution-era crimes, including ordering the violent suppression of protests in Tripoli, during which international media reported that at least 300 people were killed; inciting violence and authorising the supply of weapons. Prime Minister of Libya for seven years and the country’s representative at the UN, Dorda was a member of Muammar Gaddafi’s innermost circle, said to have been one of the former dictator’s most loyal supporters.  

Dorda is being tried with 36 other senior officials from the former government for war crimes. One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam - currently in a prison in the mountain town of Zintan - is also being tried, in absentia. The defendants, many unrecognisable from their days as the much-feared and most powerful men in Libya, had shaved heads and were dressed in blue prison uniforms.

Standing beside a table stacked with documents prepared by Dorda’s defence team, his lawyer argued that some charges should be dropped on technicalities or because of weak prosecution evidence. For charges relating to violent suppression of protestors who joined anti-Gaddafi demonstrations in Tripoli’s central square, he said defence evidence showed that his client had not been involved in authorising the actions of security forces.

“Orders given by Dorda were all in line with duties stated in his job description, made under Libyan law,” his lawyer said. “His orders were to stand against al-Qaeda operatives and foreign spies. It is clear that no part of his orders related to dealing with protestors in a violent way.” 

According to witness statements presented by the defence, orders relating to violence against protestors had come directly from Muammar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

Such witness testimonies are unlikely to hold much sway in court, however. The head of investigations for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Sadiq al-Sour, told Middle East Eye that although the court allowed the presentation of some 20 witnesses and other testimonies in the course of the trial, the prosecution was likely to deem these irrelevant. 

“Witness testimonies are conflicting, and the witnesses themselves were involved [with the old government],” he said, adding that orders had been given in closed meetings meaning there was no proof that scenarios described by witnesses were accurate.

One testimony came from a Gaddafi-era official who spoke to Moussa Koussa - the former intelligence head implicated in assassinations and kidnappings of dissenters under the old government - who defected in late March 2011 and sought asylum abroad. “Koussa said: ‘Gaddafi gave direct orders to his henchmen,’” the lawyer told the court. 

“Moussa Koussa is a criminal and a wanted man here in Libya,” al-Sour said, representing the prosecution in an impassioned tirade interrupted only by a power cut, which plunged the court into darkness and quiet for several minutes. “How can we take a statement into consideration when it is from somebody wanted by the Libyan government?” 

In the purpose-built courtroom in Tripoli’s Hadba Prison, where many former government officials are held, the defendants leaned forward in the cage, listening intently to the proceedings - the last opportunity for the presentation of any verbal defence. A middle-aged man smiled warmly when he caught the eye of a family member - one of 16 defendants’ relatives who attended Wednesday’s hearing.

It was not clear why six defendants, including former Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi, were not present. Four further missing defendants are not currently detained but, al-Sour said, apart from one now confined to a psychiatric hospital, were expected to be present for the verdict.

Dorda’s lawyer made no mention of allegations of torture and duress raised at previous hearings and which al-Sour had dismissed as “a strategy of the defence” aimed at twisting public opinion and buying more time. Admitting that force may have been used by revolutionaries after Dorda’s initial capture, al-Sour stressed that, whilst under the authority of the General Prosecutor, no defendants had been under any duress.

“For the judiciary, the trial is going in accordance with human rights and is all about getting to the truth and then reaching a fair verdict, and anyone who checks the thousands of documents of the prosecution will find the truth about the old regime,” he said. “I think this trial is going to be documented in Libyan history, especially Libyan judicial history, and will prove that the Libyan judicial authority can make fair trials according to international laws.”

Al-Sour stressed that all defendants had access to medical treatment and that international NGOs had been able to make visits. However, after the outbreak of civil war in Libya in July last year, most western embassies evacuated from Tripoli and, since then, few international NGOs have retained any meaningful presence on the ground in Libya.

In January 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) representatives visited Dorda, Mahmoudi and former intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi in Hadba prison, reporting that these interviews indicated the Libyan authorities had failed to grant some defendants basic due process rights. 

“Detainees said that they did not have lawyers present during interrogations, the right to remain silent and to know their interrogators’ identity, or an opportunity to review the evidence submitted against them in relation to crimes they allegedly committed during the 2011 uprising,” the HRW report said.

Al-Sour said that defendants had now been shown the files of prosecution evidence, which, he explained, put them in a better situation than most prisoners in Libya, and insisted lawyers had regular access. “Any time they wanted, lawyers were allowed to visit or call the defendants,” he said.

Despite these assurances from the General Prosecutor’s Office, one lawyer for the former head of Gaddafi’s personal intelligence, Mabrouk Mohamed Mabrouk, said access to his client was difficult and he had met him on just two occasions. The relative of another defendant said prison visits were possible but always challenging to arrange. He also said some lawyers had resigned and had to be replaced with ones unfamiliar with the history of the case. He described the trial overall as “unacceptable”.

The court proceedings are not open to the public, although parts of the trial are shown on a national television station. Access has been problematic for human rights organisations, journalists and international observers. In May last year, one UN observer was detained for more than an hour by prison guards on suspicion of planning to use black magic to influence the judiciary. 

No international observers appear to have attended any hearings since last summer.

Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, who is currently overseeing a preliminary assessment of this trial in relation to international fair trial standards, said that a void of international assistance or observation was likely to leave a question mark over the trial. 

“It is already exceedingly difficult for a domestic court to undertake very complex war crimes trials in a post-conflict, or what is now in Libya a conflict environment,” he said. “Without international assistance, it becomes a much more challenging and arduous process to ensure that international standards are met.”

Although international journalists are officially allowed to attend the hearings, they continue to report being refused entry or given only restricted access. On Wednesday, Western journalists and at least four lawyers were instructed by prison authorities to leave the courtroom during the recess, and told that the trial had ended. It had not and they were unable to hear other defendants and lawyers who gave final defence statements, before the trial was adjourned. 

A final verdict is expected to be given on 28 July.