By Julia Payne
Libyan prosecutors opened the trial of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi’s sons and more than two dozen of his ex-officials on Monday in a major test for the North African state’s transition to a democracy.
Gaddafi’s sons Saadi Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam did not appear in the courtroom at Tripoli’s Al-Hadba prison, but the deposed ruler’s ex-spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi was among the former senior officials sitting in blue jumpsuits behind a fenced-off section.
The men face charges ranging from corruption to war crimes related to the deaths during the 2011 uprising, which expanded into a civil war that eventually ousted Gaddafi. The former Libyan leader was later killed after being captured by rebels.
Addressing the four judges, many of the defendants complained they had not been given access to lawyers or only saw them at court appearances.
“I want to be treated like other prisoners. I want visiting rights. I don’t have a lawyer,” Senussi said.
Prosecutors said Senussi had been allowed to see relatives, but denied lawyers had been prevented from visiting their clients at the prison.
Post-Gaddafi Libya has so far been defined by a weak interim government and growing unrest as former revolutionary fighters refuse to give up their weapons, and armed protesters blockade the country’s crucial oil exports.
The trial began a day after interim prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni announced his resignation after an attack on his family and following the ousting of the previous prime minister barely a month ago.
The International Criminal Court and other human rights organisations are concerned over the fairness of Libya’s justice system although the government won the right last year to try Gaddafi’s former spy chief domestically instead of at the ICC.
Senussi was joined in the court by Gaddafi’s former prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, and former foreign minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi. Also in the court was ex-intelligence chief Buzeid Dorda, who had appeared at earlier trial proceedings.
But the chief investigator in the case, Sidiq al-Sour, said Saadi would not appear in court on Monday because investigations were still ongoing.
Saif al-Islam, long viewed as Gaddafi’s heir and still held by a group of former rebels in western Libya, had been expected to appear by video-link inside the courtroom.
After Monday’s opening session, the trial will not resume until April 27 as investigators need more time to finish their cases with some of the defendants.
Libya’s nascent democracy has struggled to establish basic institutions and the rule of law as Gaddafi left behind a shell of a government after absorbing all the power into his own hands during his four-decade rule.
“If they don’t get fair trials then it casts doubt over whether the new Libya is not about selective justice,” Hanan Salah, Libya researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch said before the trial.
“So far, there have been problems with legal representation. Many of those on trial did not have a lawyer from the beginning – a cornerstone of a fair trial.”
Saadi Gaddafi, known as a playboy with a brief career in professional soccer, was extradited to Libya from Niger in early March. He had been expected to appear in court for the first time to hear charges.
Gaddafi’s more prominent son, Saif al-Islam, is being held by the powerful western Zintan militia group, who have refused to hand him over to the central government, saying they believe it cannot provide a secure trial.
But Libya’s justice minister insisted that the trial was open to the public who would ensure the process was fair and not turn into a “Mickey Mouse” show trial.
“I will not allow any crazy stuff, I will make sure it meets international standards … that is why we are having open trials,” Salah al-Merghani, the justice minister told Reuters.
“We heard there were complaints from the lawyers … The court will see if the complaints are genuine or not.”