Libya on Sunday launched the first trial of loyalists of slain dictator Muammar Qaddafi, putting 41 of his close supporters in the dock of a military court in the eastern city of Benghazi.
“It is the first trial concerning the February 17 revolution,” judge Colonel Ali al-Hamida said at the start of the court proceedings which were open to the public.
The men are accused of supporting Qaddafi’s regime in its attempts to crush a popular revolt launched on February 17 last year, as well as helping prisoners to escape.
An AFP correspondent attending the proceedings said the first session of the trial was held under tight security.
The 15-lawyer defense team for the accused contested the proceedings, saying most of the accused are civilians but are being prosecuted in a military court.
The trial was later adjourned to February 15.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2012, has raised concerns over Libya’s judicial system.
“Libya’s interim government and its international supporters should make it an urgent priority to build a functioning justice system and begin legal reform that protects human rights after Muammar Qaddafi,” the group said in the report.
HRW and two other human rights groups, Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, have also accused former rebels who helped topple Qaddafi’s 42-year-old rule of “torturing” their prisoners, mainly ex-regime loyalists.
On Friday, HRW noted that a former ambassador to France, Omar Brebesh, died of possible “torture” in the custody of a militia less than 24 hours after his detention in Tripoli.
Since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime last year, Libya’s new leaders have struggled to impose their authority on the vast country of six million people. One of the greatest challenges still facing the leadership is how to rein in the dozens of revolutionary militias that arose during the war and now are reluctant to disband or give up their weapons.
The government has started a program to encourage the militiamen to turn in their arms in exchange for benefits like education and jobs, but it has not put an end to the almost constant clashes involving rival groups.
Also, forces loyal to the deposed regime have been attacking troops from the new regime, adding another layer of chaos.
On Wednesday, a gunbattle between rival militias erupted in Tripoli, illustrating how Libya’s new rulers have so far failed to put their stamp on their country and bring it under control.
No one was hurt in the bizarre standoff. Witnesses say remnants of fighting groups from the towns of Misrata and Zintan faced off in downtown Tripoli over control of a sports complex on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The two sides fired rifles and heavy machine guns, witnesses said, but mostly in the air, shattering the complex’s windows and damaging a number of nearby cars. After about an hour, Tripoli’s high security council, which is under the interior ministry, blocked off the area and took control of the building.
The skirmish was part of a larger battle between the two groups over control of sensitive spots like the airport. The Misrata brigade had been camped out in the sports complex and the Zintan brigade tried to take it from them, witnesses said.
Brigades from both cities played key roles in the bloody eight-month civil war that ended with the capture and killing of Qaddafi in October, but they have since refused to submit to the new authorities.
In related news, Zimbabwe’s president has condemned the continent-wide Africa Union for recognizing Libya’s National Transitional Council at a recent summit, state radio reported Wednesday.
President Robert Mugabe returned to Harare late Tuesday from the gathering of African nations in Ethiopia.
At the airport, he accused unnamed African countries of being “fronts” for Western powers whose “criminal” NATO bombardment of Libya helped lead to the killing of Qaddafi, a former Mugabe ally, state radio said.
Other independent accounts from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said Mugabe told fellow African leaders there Western countries now saw their organization as “a toothless bulldog.”
He said Qaddafi was killed “in broad daylight” and his children were hunted like animals, the independent NewZimbabwe media agency reported.
“Then we rush to recognize the NTC” without demanding an investigation into Qaddafi’s murder, Mugabe said
He cautioned that Western powers suffering the effects of recession could target other African countries for their mineral wealth and resources.
“Who is next?” he said, repeating warnings he gave his to own party at its national convention in Zimbabwe in December that Western powers were not to be trusted.