The Times West Virginian

Headline News

February 18, 2013

Libya’s struggle for justice fuels violence

BENGHAZI, Libya — Col. Faraj el-Dersi, who defected to the rebel side from Moammar Gadhafi’s police force, was gunned down late last year on the streets of Benghazi, and he bled to death in the arms of his teenage daughter.

As Libya on Sunday marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Gadhafi, the death of el-Dersi and nearly 40 other similar slayings are seen as evidence that some in the country are too impatient for a political system that has yet to deliver justice and national reconciliation.

Suspicion in many of the killings of senior security and military officials has fallen on Islamists who were brutally suppressed under Gadhafi. Now, they have become among the most powerful groups in the new Libya, particularly in the east, with heavily armed militias at their command.

And they are settling old scores themselves, rather than wait for transitional justice — the process of society punishing or forgiving the abuses of the old regime.

Mustafa al-Kufi, a 59-year-old former prisoner and political activist, said the various post-Gadhafi governments and the current parliament are all fearful that if they head down the path of transitional justice, many members of the ruling class would be among those punished for past wrongdoing.

“This is a very pressing issue and a core demand in the street,” said al-Kufi, who spent 12 years in prison under Gadhafi.

“We need to know who did what and then ask families of the victims for forgiveness. But since this didn’t take place, violence will continue because there is no justice.

Like other Arab countries that ousted authoritarian leaders, Libya is now mired in a chaotic and violent transition to a new society. It is plagued by unruly and heavily armed militias that have slowly come under a unified command but remain filled with hard-liners who were in the front line in the war against Gadhafi.

The transition is further complicated by an autonomy movement in the oil-rich east, a central government too weak to exert its authority across the vast desert nation, and heavily armed Islamic extremists who are pressing to fill a power vacuum.

The civil war swept Gadhafi from power, but the bitterness and rage lingers in a country where the authoritarian government imprisoned, tortured and killed its opponents.

Hana al-Gallal, a prominent Benghazi lawyer, said allowing old regime figures to be part of the new order will only fuel more violence.

“Those whose sons were killed, their dreams shattered by the Gadhafi regime, will seek revenge when they see them back in power,” she said. “The result is assassinations.”

Some of the anger is directed at those who were in the old government — from low-level police officials to ex-ministers who are now police chiefs and lawmakers. That has prompted a push to prevent those with ties to the former leadership from serving in positions of power.

Libya’s parliament, the General National Congress, is debating a draft bill that would bar anyone deemed to have had ties to the former regime from state institutions for 10 years. A version of the draft law published on the GNC’s website last week listed 36 reasons for excluding Libyans from political life.

They include those who participated in Gadhafi’s coup in 1969; members of the notorious Revolutionary Guards, which were formed to hunt down the dictator’s opponents; those who took part in reform efforts in the 2000s led by Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam; and those who worked for leading magazines, newspapers, news agencies or served as an ambassador under Gadhafi.

The bill’s supporters say such sweeping measures are needed to allow the ministries and state institutions in the fledgling democracy to develop free of the toxic influence and corruption of the Gadhafi era and to stop the cycles of bloodshed like what happened in Benghazi.

Al-Gallal says the risk is worth the potential payoff.

“We have lost youth like budding flowers for the sake of the country. We have young men who lost their limbs for the sake of the country. Can’t you just lose a post, not become a minister or a lawmaker, for some time?” she said.

“If two out of 10 decisions to oust regime members are not right, it doesn’t matter. The most important is to get rid of the eight others.”

For critics of the bill, however, such a ban perpetuates the Gadhafi regime’s practice of excluding a large bloc of the population from political life.

Mohammed el-Mufti, a historian and veteran political analyst, said such tactics will not lead to reconciliation but will fuel more turmoil.

“The revolution won. We got rid of Gadhafi. So why chase these people now?” he asked. “Why create a scarecrow and new ghosts of the loyalists?”

If implemented, the law would bar a chunk of current lawmakers and government officials, regardless of whether they defected to the rebel side during the eight-month civil war that ended with the killing of Gadhafi in October 2011.

Many of the leaders of the rebellion, including the head of the opposition National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, as well as the rebel’s wartime prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, would be barred. Abdul-Jalil was justice minister under Gadhafi, while Jibril, who is the leader of the largest political party in parliament, was a top strategist with Seif al-Islam’s Libya Tomorrow project.

Even the country’s current president, Mohammed el-Megarif, would be eliminated because he served as Libya’s ambassador to India in 1980.

Another body, called the Supreme Agency for Standards of Integrity and Nationalism, vets Libyans for links to the regime. Sifting through thousands of pages of documents culled from the archives of the regime’s Revolutionary Committees, the agency’s workers search for evidence of links to Gadhafi’s government or security agencies by current officials.

Spokesman Omar Habasi said the agency has disqualified hundreds of people nominated to government posts after finding links to the former regime.

Among those scratched was Ashur Shway, a popular security chief in Benghazi who was nominated by the current government to become the interior minister. Shway appealed to the Constitutional Court, which ruled in his favor and overturned the ban.

“It’s impossible to start reconciliation without first presenting those implicated in crimes to justice and then start reconciliation,” he said.

But there indications that some people have not waited for the political system to deliver justice.

Such is the case of el-Dersi, whose killing was the last in a series of assassinations in Benghazi that has shaken the city and prompted residents to set up tents in city squares and man checkpoints in their own neighborhoods.

As Libyans filled the streets Sunday, dancing and celebrating the anniversary of their revolt, el-Dersi’s 17-year-old daughter remained shaken by her father’s death.

“When I hear shooting, I remember the whole thing all over again,” she said, choking back tears.

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