BENGHAZI // On the top floor of the main courthouse, half a dozen young men hunch in concentration over glowing laptops. With 21st-century technology, they are creating history.
These protest activists are uploading videos of attacks on rebels by loyalists of Muammar Qaddafi, updating Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and keeping the foreign press informed.
The courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi has become the unlikely nerve centre of the Libyan uprising – and, it was announced yesterday, a newly formed council that will be its “political face”.
Ahmed Sanalla, 26, a medical student at Garyounis University in Benghazi, explaining how he and his colleagues are circumventing the shutdown of the internet and mobile phone networks, said: “We’re getting online through a two-way satellite system. We set up Skype and VoIP connections.”
REVOLUTION IN LIBYA
They have joined forces with judges, lawyers and academics to keep the world’s attention focused on the rebellion that is shaking the foundations of Col Qaddafi’s four-decade grip on power and the bloody response by the regime that has cost at least 1,000 lives.
A week after the rebels captured the city after heavy fighting with soldiers from the local garrison, the courthouse has become to Libya what Tahrir Square was to Egypt.
Benghazi is where the protests against Col Qaddafi’s regime began on February 6, so the bland Soviet-style building has also, by extension, become the hub of the uprising that has placed almost the entire east of the country under rebel control.
The courthouse will also be the seat of the newly formed National Libyan Council, a spokesman, Hafiz Ghoga, announced yesterday. The declaration came after a meeting of Qaddafi opponents here that decided they would not hold talks with the Libyan leader.
“The main aim of the national council is to have a political face for the revolution,” Mr Ghoga said. “We cannot call it a transition government. It is a national council.”
The council will not announce its members and will not have a military role, he added.
Colonel Qaddafi’s regime faces almost unanimous international condemnation for its brutal repression of opposition protesters, including militiamen terrorising civilians in the capital by spraying them with automatic gunfire from cars.
Fresh clashes were reported in the port city of Misrata, 200km east of Tripoli, and Zawiya, an oil refining town on the main coastal motorway just west of the capital.
The US administration and the UN Security Council have announced new sanctions against Libya, but the announcements were overshadowed by a demand by Barack Obama for Colonel Qaddafi to step down immediately.
“When a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now,” the US president said.
In Benghazi, the courthouse sits on the seafront next to a ransacked security headquarters where a new newspaper has set up and where the rebels now collect weapons. Atop the former security building the rebels now fly the red, green and black flag used when Libya gained independence from Italy in 1951 and which they have adopted as the symbol of their uprising.
“When everything started, we came here to the courthouse. Everybody was converging here to donate food, tents, medicine,” Mr Sanalla said.
Demonstrations have started taking place every day outside the graffiti-covered courthouse. Members of a self-styled group of revolutionaries, calling themselves the February 17th group, also hold meetings here. The courthouse has long been a rallying point for dissent in Beghazi, the second largest city in Libya and the heartland of tribes whose loyalty to Colonel Qaddafi has always been tenuous. Notably, the families of the victims of an alleged massacre at the notorious Abu Slim Prison have gathered regularly in front of the building to stage demonstrations.
According to Human Rights Watch, 1,200 prisoners died when the government put down an inmate revolt in 1996. It was the arrest on February 15 of Fathi Terbil, the lawyer representing the relatives of the Abu Slim victims, that sparked a demonstration giving birth to the Libyan protests that have engulfed the nation. Mr Terbil, now free, is a member of one of the two Benghazi transitional committees that met for the first time at the courthouse on Saturday. “This is just the first stage of the uprising: the destruction of the regime,” Mr Terbil said. “We haven’t completed it yet.”
He said two committees had been created in Benghazi: a civil one to deal with civic affairs and a military one. Other rebel-held cities have formed similar committees. A judge on Benghazi’s civic committee, Jamal Bannour, says residents knew the courthouse was the place to come when the phones and internet were shut down.
“We had to decide what to do, what were our demands. We were following the news and finding ways to make our voices heard outside the country,” he says, sitting in a dusty office inside the court in front of a window smashed during the clashes. Mr Bannour, who was one of a group of judges and lawyers who took to the streets after Mr Terbil’s arrest and was in the crowd when security forces turned their guns on the population, says he and another dozen members of the transitional committee “have been sleeping here, taking shifts, since the beginning of the demonstrations”.
For the past five days, young men have been hacking away at laptops tenuously connected to the World Wide Web, spreading news of the uprising. Before the start of the uprising they dared to defy the regime only online on their home computers. They say they were too scared to be politically active in public.
A radio tuned to the local broadcaster Radio Benghazi – now known as Radio Hurra, or Free Radio – urges people to leave their houses to protest, but to refrain from violence and looting. The announcer also asks them to clean the streets after the demonstrations.
Already, the city already has two new newspapers, Libya and Libya al Horreiya, or Freedom for Libya. The latter is inside the former security headquarters and interrogation centre and published for the third time on Sunday. In Libya al Horreiya’s crowded newsroom, a dozen new journalists furiously type up their reports. “We still cannot believe we are working in here. It was such a scary place,” said Mohammed Kablan, 30, a doctor. firstname.lastname@example.org
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters