Concerns About Verdict in Trial of Former Qadhafi-era Officials
28 July 2015 – The verdict in the trial of 37 former Qadhafi regime officials announced today by the Tripoli Court of Assize is a cause of strong concern as the trial did not meet international standards of fair trial in a number of ways, said Claudio Cordone, Director of the Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Rule of Law Division of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The defendants were charged with a wide range of offences relating to the attempted suppression of the 2011 revolution., The court announced today that Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, son of Muammar Qadhafi, and six others had been tried in absentia. Qadhafi, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, Qadhafi's last prime minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmudi and six other defendants were sentenced to death by firing squad. Eight others received sentences of life imprisonment, and the remainders of those convicted received sentences to between 12 and five years. Four defendants were acquitted of all charges. Qadhafi – the first defendant on the list of 37 – was connected by videolink from Zintan only to four of the 24 sessions. Libya has not complied with the International Criminal Court order to surrender him.
Mr Cordone said concerns over the trial include the fact that several defendants were absent for a number of sessions. The evidence of criminal conduct was largely attributed to the defendants in general, with little effort to establish individual criminal responsibility. The prosecution did not present any witnesses or documents in court, confining itself entirely to the written evidence available in the case file, thus missing a historic opportunity to construct a public record of crimes committed by the former regime – a key step in Libya's transitional justice process.
During their pre-trial detention defendants were denied access to lawyers and family for prolonged periods, and some reported that they were beaten or otherwise ill-treated, but UNSMIL is not aware of any investigation into these allegations. Many defendants were not represented by a lawyer during the pre-trial process, which deprived them of a crucial opportunity to establish their defence. Defence lawyers said they faced challenges in meeting their clients privately or accessing the full case file, and some said they received threats. They were constrained by the court to two or three witnesses per defendant and some said that witnesses were reluctant to appear in court due to fears about their safety. The court did not respond to defence counsel requests to examine prosecution witnesses.
While recognizing that Libyan law was amended to permit trials to be broadcast live as a means of making them public, not all sessions were broadcast, and a number of those broadcasts were interrupted or cut short. UNSMIL observers attended all sessions in court until June 2014 and subsequently followed the trial proceedings through live broadcasts.
Given these shortcomings, it is particularly worrisome that the court has handed down nine death sentences, Mr. Cordone said. International standards require that death sentences may only be imposed after proceedings that meet the highest level of respect for fair trial standards. The United Nations opposes the imposition of the death penalty as a matter of principle.
Moreover, the next step in the judicial process is only cassation – a review of the application of Libyan law, not of questions of fact - rather than a proper appeal as required by international standards. UNSMIL had previously urged the Libyan authorities to reform their national legislation introducing the possibility of an appeal for verdicts of the Court of Assize, in line with their obligations under international human rights law.
Mr Cordone emphasized that those responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law should be held to account, while appreciating the challenges in conducting a trial of senior and other officials from the Qadhafi regime in Libya at the current time. With this in mind, UNSMIL shared its observations on the trial with the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Judicial Council in January 2015, underlining its concerns about fair trial standards, and offering recommendations to mitigate the gaps.
Mr. Cordone said that UNSMIL will review the verdict once published in full over the coming period before completing its full assessment of the trial, and emphasizes the importance of introducing legal reforms to enhance human rights and rule of law standards.