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Friday 7 August 2015

Lawyers to appeal sentences handed out to Libyan regime-era officials


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Defence lawyers in Libya are preparing to appeal against sentences handed out last week, including nine death penalties, for war crimes allegedly committed by senior officials from the regime of Muammar Gaddafi during Libya’s 2011 uprising.

A week after the pronouncements had been made, lawyers complained that they had still not received copies of the documents from the court ruling.

Muammar Gaddafi

‘Time is precious to us because we have only 60 days to appeal,’ said lawyer Ibrahim Aboisha.

He is representing two clients - Gaddafi’s former head of intelligence Abdullah Senussi and the man who served as his right-hand man, Abdulhamid Amar Oheida, both of whom were among the nine sentenced to death by firing squad.

‘We only heard the sentences in the court, like everyone else who was present, but we must see all the details and the reasons why the judge made the ruling and gave such sentences before we can prepare our appeal,’ Aboisha said.

The verdicts were passed by judge Naji Al-Amin on 28 July, in a purpose-built courtroom inside Tripoli’s Hadba prison facility, where most of the accused men have been held.

Abdullah Senussi

The death sentences were a dramatic finale to the mass trial of 36 regime-era senior officials and Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam. The often slow-moving proceedings had drifted on for over a year with scant international attention, after Libya’s security situation deteriorated forcing most embassies and international organisations to relocate to neighbouring Tunisia.

Sentenced in absentia and having apparently had no meaningful legal representation throughout the trial, Saif was also handed the death penalty. His sentence is little more than a symbolic gesture, however. Under Libyan law, Saif would have to be retried in person and he continues to be held in the mountain town of Zintan, which is not under the control of the Tripoli government.

The verdict was also pronounced in spite of a long-standing demand from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Libya to hand over Saif to the Hague, where he is wanted for crimes against humanity. The Libyan authorities - under successive and now rival post-revolutionary governments - have continued to appeal against the ICC’s demand, insisting that its judicial systems were competent to try Saif.

‘‘There are serious allegations of a denial of fair trial rights of the defendants

Richard Goldstone, Honorary President, IBA's Human Rights Institute

The Tripoli Justice Ministry said that, since the ICC had agreed that Libya’s court was deemed competent to try Senussi, the same rule should apply to Saif. However, his ongoing absence from the court proceedings (appearances via video-link stopped last summer) and a lack of independent verification of either his whereabouts or wellbeing, continues to cast a shadow over the proceedings against Saif.

At the Tripoli Appeals Court, 23 other defendants were given prison sentences, ranging from life imprisonment to five years, and large fines. Four men were acquitted and released immediately after the proceedings, and charges were dropped against a fifth who was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

‘I was shocked when I heard the verdicts,’ said another lawyer whose client received a prison sentence, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘My client’s sentence is much too long, and it is for nothing.’ Calling both the accusations and the case presented by the General Prosecutor weak, he said he was certain his client was innocent. Like Aboisha, he was waiting to receive the court documents, to prepare an appeal.

Saif Gaddafi

The trial has been condemned by international human rights organisations as failing to meet international fair trial standards while having been plagued with human rights violations. Amnesty International called the proceedings ‘deeply flawed’ and said the Libyan authorities had failed to ensure the defendants’ due process rights had been met.

Richard Goldstone is Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. ‘There are serious allegations of a denial of fair trial rights of the defendants,’ he said, voicing concerns about the conditions in which defence counsel and witnesses could be protected and perform their duties. 'This is especially of concern in cases such as the present one where some of the defendants have been sentenced to death. There should be a full reconsideration of the proceedings by the Supreme Court of Libya.’

Richard Goldstone

The Head of Investigations for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Sadiq Al-Sour, has repeatedly said that defendants’ rights had been met, citing access to medical care, family visits, and investigations carried out in a ‘comfortable atmosphere’ and only by the General Prosecutor’s office. He also insisted that the court was completely impartial, despite it operating in Tripoli, which is controlled by a self-appointed, and not internationally-recognised, government.

However, such insistences seem to carry little weight amidst the powerful international backlash against the proceedings. They have also been undermined by the widespread circulation on social media sites across Libya of a video showing another of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, being tortured in Hadba prison, the same facility where most of the defendants have been incarcerated, and the location of the appeals court itself. The nine-minute video-clip shows Saadi being blindfolded, slapped, beaten on the soles of his feet and forced to listen to another man being tortured in an adjacent room.

Despite international concerns and regardless of a general amnesty for regime-era figures declared by Libya’s internationally-recognised government which is now based in the east of the country, lawyers believe the next two months are unlikely to see any meaningful reversal of, or change to, the sentences.

‘It is not looking promising. As long as the circumstances here remain the same, the result will be the same,’ Aboisha said. ‘But if the circumstances change and the appeals stage is fairer, then I am full of hope.’