Friends disappear as vengeance still stalks across Libya
For the first time since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, a trial has opened near Benghazi of civilians accused of supporting the former regime. Some of four dozen civilians are also accused of helping "loyalist" prisoners escape from their "revolutionary" captors.
The military trial opened and adjourned just as quickly at a base just outside Benghazi. The defence team accused the court of incompetence and requested a transfer to civilian court. None of the accused, after all, faces war-related accusations.
One wonders what kind of justice the new masters of Libya can deliver and how justice is to be served and maintained when security is minimal, innocent people die every day and thousands of people languish in prisons across the country without trial or access to lawyers or relatives, let alone rights groups.
Many international rights groups question the competence of Libya's justice system and its readiness to handle such cases. In fact, the uprising that began in Benghazi a year ago was symbolically led by the city's courts, when judges and lawyers laid siege to the building for weeks in protest over the lack of an independent and reformed judiciary.
Barely a year has passed, and the interim government has been in office less than three months. The government has yet to deliver on its pledge to reform the judiciary and conduct what it has called "interim justice". Any trial taking place today is being conducted in the very same judicial system that the rebels had fought against.
In the meantime, rebel militias particularly in Misurata, Sirte and Tripoli are being accused of a series of basic rights violations, murder and armed robbery. The government has yet to make a single arrest in those cases, let alone begin the process of trying them.
At least 10 of my friends have long since disappeared. I know that at least three of them were killed in cold blood, while another two are in jail. I know nothing about the other five. Their families, desperate for news, every now and then check whether I have heard anything.
They have tried every possible means available to find out what has happened to their loved ones, but in vain. Of the 10, eight were university professors whose only crime was going on live television to urge an end to the war last summer. We all share the same values, true Libyans concerned with rebuilding our country after years of living abroad.
It's not clear how many prisoners are being held in the "new" Libya. While human-rights groups, including those representing the United Nations, talk of 7,000 to 10,000, eyewitnesses and former prisoners talk of three times those figures. Warnings are now common about widespread torture. A recently released friend told me how he had been kept for more than a week, his diabetes medication confiscated by guards. He was tearful when he described what was going on in what he dubbed Misurata's "concentration camp", where prisoners as young as 15 are kept behind bars with no visits from relatives or access to lawyers.
The living conditions at those prisons are terrible. Death by torture is widespread across the country, but the most notorious stories come from Misurata.
In Tripoli, people vanish sometimes without a trace. Less than a month ago a well-known and highly respected career diplomat, Dr Omar Brebesh, a former ambassador to France, was lured from his office for an interview by militia members, some of whom he knew personally. He went to their makeshift office outside Tripoli and vanished. A couple of days later his body, showing signs of torture, turned up in a forest west of Tripoli.
In a recent article, Dr Brebesh's widow described the brutality her late husband had suffered and she even named a couple of the perpetrators. His oldest son had actually been called to take his father home, but not been told that Dr Brebesh had been killed until he saw the body.
Women are also being mistreated. After "revolutionaries" entered Sirte, they intimidated the few women who had stayed in the city by taking them to Misurata. Any woman who tried to protect her children or her valuables faced the same intimidation.
At the same time, the interim government has refused to admit its failure to maintain the peace or collect arms from the population, let alone operate as a functional government. In Tripoli today, where the government has a little control, atrocities are committed by well-armed militias, each controlling part of the city.
On at least three occasions, the interim government has called on militias to leave the city with no result. Tripoli's airport is under the control of Zintan militia, which staged a show last October when Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, cut the inaugural ribbon symbolising the airport's "new opening". The militia is still in control.
The western-backed NTC and its interim government have failed to work on the long-pledged national reconciliation conference, which could begin to deal with the failings of the judiciary. In a tribal society such as Libya, there will be no justice without national reconciliation and any trials taking place now will always be questioned.
Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and journalist
Updated: February 13, 2012 04:00 AM