ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — Wearing a sky-blue safari suit and a pair of sandals, the imprisoned son of slain dictator Moammar Gadhafi made his second court appearance this year on Thursday in a local court in Libya’s western mountains where he is facing charges of harming state security.
Jailed in the town of Zintan, whose fighters captured him as he was fleeing to neighboring Niger, the trial of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi underlines Libya’s ongoing state of lawlessness and lacking state authority in the face of a hodgepodge of militia groups.
With no national army or police in place since the fall of Gadhafi’s regime in an eight-month civil war in 2011, successive governments have been too weak to either secure Seif al-Islam’s imprisonment in the capital, Tripoli, or put pressure on his captors, a militia known as Abu Bakr al-Sadek, to hand him over to the central government.
The trial also comes at a time when the Libyan capital is locked in turmoil as militia groups blockaded, for a fifth day, the foreign and justice ministries, and stormed the interior ministry and state TV buildings. They want the country’s parliament to pass a contentious law that would exclude Gadhafi-era officials from political life.
One version of the law, if passed, would dismiss a considerable slice of Libya’s new rulers, who served under Gadhafi in the 1980s — regardless of their role during the early days of the uprising in 2011 that ended with the dictator’s death in his hometown of Sirte.
Some rights activists decried the law as too harsh. Others see a purge of former Gadhafi-era officials as a necessary prerequisite to transitional justice and national reconciliation.
The rule of law is still beyond reach in the North African country, which for 42 years was governed by the dictator’s whims and eccentricities. Courts are still paralyzed and security remains tenuous as unruly militias proliferate.
On Thursday, courts in the southern city of Sabha partially suspended work and judges and court employees held a sit-in to protest severe deterioration of security after recurrent prison breaks. Most recently, 111 prisoners escaped on Tuesday from Sabha main prison, according to Mohammed Farag Ibrahim, Sabha prosecutor.
Gomaa Nasr, the head of the prison, told the state news agency LANA that the prison break was not the first and that during recent months hundreds of prisoners had escaped from poorly secured prison facilities.
After the ministries were surrounded, pro-democracy activists urged the government to disarm and disband the militias and held protests denouncing the armed groups. However, a Thursday demonstration in Tripoli’s Algeria Square saw low turnout, reflecting waning enthusiasm or fear among local residents.
The state, however, relies heavily on militias to serve as security forces since the police and military remain a shambles. The government pays the salaries of tens of thousands of militiamen who often pursue their own agendas — enforcing their own rule over neighborhoods and towns, engaging in kidnappings and extortion and fighting gun battles with rival militias. Some have hard-line Islamist ideologies and have become notorious for imposing strict interpretations of Islamic law.
With many fearing the situation will worsen, Zintan’s fighters have felt encouraged to keep Seif al-Islam away from the capital.
“There is zero control in the capital,” said town council spokesman Khaled al-Zintani. “Weapons are in everyone’s hands and prison breaks are recurrent. Zintan is the safest place,” he said, adding that the trial would be open to journalists and human rights groups.
While he insisted Seif al-Islam could be transferred to Tripoli if the government secured the area and requested it, he claimed that Seif al-Islam’s life is under threat.
“There are parties who want to silence him because if he talked he will reveal the information that would stain them and would uncover corruption of those who cooperated with the regime at the last decade.”
At Thursday’s 15-minute court session, Gadhafi’s longtime heir apparent seemed at times apathetic, smiling occasionally and revealing a missing front tooth as the judge adjourned the hearing until Sept. 19 to allow defense lawyers time to study the case. It was unclear how he lost the tooth.
The 40-year-old is the most heavyweight former regime member to be tried in Libya. Imprisoned in solitary confinement, according to al-Zintani, Seif al-Islam has spoken few words during his two court appearances.
“Fine,” Seif al-Islam said derisively when the judge told him that two volunteer lawyers would be his defense team.
Seif al-Islam also is facing charges of attempting to escape prison and insulting Libya’s new flag. The charges are linked to his June meeting with an International Criminal Court delegation accused of smuggling documents and a camera to him in his cell. The four-member team was detained by Zintan rebels but released after the ICC made an apology and pledged to investigate the incident.
The charges are separate from those by the International Criminal Court, which indicted Seif al-Islam for the murder and persecution of protesters in the uprising that ultimately toppled his father’s regime in 2011.
According to filings by defense lawyers at the ICC, Seif al-Islam said he wants to be tried for alleged war crimes in the Netherlands, claiming that a trial in Libya would be tantamount to murder. “There will certainly be no justice in the case if the prosecution is based on evidence from torture,” he said. “I am not afraid to die, but if you execute me after such a trial, you should just call it murder,” he added.
The rest of Seif al-Islam’s family, including his mother, his sister, two brothers and others, were granted asylum in Oman in March, moving there from Algeria, where they found refuge during the civil war.