By Hanan Salah
Dressed in a black headscarf and traditional black abaya, Alanoud Sanussi, 22, seemed exhausted but still managed to smile at me. The daughter of Libya’s jailed former intelligence chief, she had waited for me in the office of the militia commander, who had abducted her two days earlier–and only minutes after her release from Tripoli’s notorious al-Roueimy prison. It was the second time I had seen her in a week— only this time around we were both at a loss about the circumstances.
Alanoud described her abduction by men of the “First Special Reinforcement Unit,” a militia vying for recognition by the military police; she said their first words to her were: “We are here to save you.” Alanoud’s abduction under the noses of the very people assigned to protect her underscores the government’s failure to get a grip on security and raises the question of how Libyan forces can ensure that her father and others associated with Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s years in power receive fair trials. How can the authorities guarantee the safety of a former intelligence chief whom many revile, or of Qaddafi’s son, who symbolizes oppression in the eyes of many Libyans?
Two years after NATO ended its air campaign, resulting in Qaddafi’s defeat, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, and the European Union have done little to follow through with an effective Libya restructural policy. They have struggled to coordinate support to address the problems with Libya’s security sector and justice system.
The lack of security is a key concern. The judicial police, responsible for protecting judges, prosecutors, witnesses, and lawyers, are weak and lack training. Meanwhile, public contempt for the judicial profession is growing and judges face constant threats—at least two have already been killed.
Lawyers also lack protection. Hanan Anuweisry, a female lawyer, was viciously attacked by a defendant and armed militias, who tried to force her to drop a child custody case. She told me the same militia abducted and tortured her elderly father. The authorities did not intervene or make any arrests.
The government and aligned armed groups, as well as militias that the government does not control, have held thousands of detainees for long periods of time without due process. The slow pace of prosecution is hampering efforts to get the wheels of justice turning and is stoking huge frustration among detainees. Seventeen of the 20 detainees I interviewed after a riot at al-Roueimy prison told me they had yet to see a judge or be informed of the charges against them.
During the riot, guards struck eight detainees with live gunfire. Alanoud showed me her injured foot, hit by what she thought was flying debris as she ran to escape tear gas. Lacking adequate training and non-lethal equipment, prison authorities struggled to contain the situation.
The main problem affecting both justice and security is that armed militias still maintain the upper hand. They have various agendas – financial, territorial, political, religious – and operate with impunity two years after the Qaddafi regime ended. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. Consequently, they retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break their financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations, and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors.
Meanwhile, Alanoud’s father, Abdullah Sanussi is in another Tripoli prison awaiting trial for crimes he is accused of committing as a member of Qaddafi’s inner circle. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in trying to suppress the 2011 uprising that led to Qaddafi’s overthrow. Libya challenged the ICC’s jurisdiction to try him, and the ICC gave Libya permission to postpone surrendering him to The Hague until it rules on the challenge.
In another detention center, higher up in the Nafussa Mountains, Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, awaits his fate. He, too, is accused of serious crimes during his father’s rule and is wanted by the ICC. The ICC rejected a Libyan bid to prosecute him domestically, which the government appealed. The government is now obliged to surrender him to The Hague. But that is easier said than done, as he remains detained by the “revolutionary” commander Alajmi al-Aeteri.
Libya started pretrial proceedings in its case against Abdullah Sanussi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and 36 other former Gaddafi officials on Sept. 19. However, it is unclear whether they have even seen a lawyer.
With international attention elsewhere, Libya is on the back burner, although it should be evident that the situation will not sort itself out. Fixing the problems will require considerable effort, time, resources, and expertise. Libyan decision makers will need to be more receptive.
Salah al-Marghani, Libya’s justice minister, has repeatedly assured me that he will not permit “Mickey Mouse trials” on his watch. But that good intention cannot be realized until Libya’s security situation stabilizes.
As I talked with Alanoud that day, I saw tears welling in her eyes, and I remember thinking, “She is just a girl, she shouldn’t even be here.” Alanoud said that when she was freed from prison, she had been “presented on a silver platter” to anyone wishing to harm her by people who were supposed to protect her. “It was surreal when these men appeared and ordered our cars to stop; none of the officers in our convoy even attempted to resist,” she told me.
Alanoud had been in prison for 10 months for using a falsified document when she entered Libya to visit her father in prison. I spoke with her for the first time while doing research on the prison riot at al-Roueimy. After I heard about her abduction, I contacted the militia commander, Haitham al-Tajouri, and he agreed to let me see her.
The militia did not mistreat her, she said, but she “couldn’t help but feel scared.”
Alanoud’s militia abductors released her on Sept. 7, and family members told me she was with relatives in southern Libya. I couldn’t help but think that it’s only a matter of time before I learned of another abduction—perhaps someone in whom there will be no media interest, and who may just disappear or, worse yet, end up dead. While the war against Qaddafi may be over, the war for judicial equanimity is far from won.
Hanan Salah is a Libya researcher for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
[Photo courtesy of Chris Potter]