A Libyan military court ruled on Wednesday that 50 people accused of fighting for Muammar Qaddafi and helping a mass jail break by alleged supporters of the deposed leader should be freed and tried instead in a civilian court.
“We decided the court is incompetent in this matter,” said Ali Hamdi, a judge in the court in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Defense lawyers welcomed the ruling, saying most of the accused were civilians and that the military court on a base in the eastern city of Benghazi was struggling to try the case.
“We feel this court is under pressure and... does not have the necessary judicial independence,” Saleh Omran, who represents 17 of the accused, denying that his clients were Qaddafi supporters, told Reuters.
“They helped the prisoners escape from jail because some of those held were their relatives and they were protecting them. It has nothing to do with Qaddafi’s men,” he said.
“This proves that justice is doing well and on the right track,” the lawyer, Hussein Gheniwa, told AFP.
A transitional government was appointed in November to lead Libya to elections but it is struggling to impose order on myriad armed groups that toppled Qaddafi last year after 42 years in power.
It has been keen to try Qaddafi’s family members and loyalists at home, but human rights activists worry that a weak central government and a lack of rule of law could rob them of the right to a fair trial.
The defendants are facing charges of using force against the revolutionary forces, terrorizing civilians and helping prisoners escape, as well as inciting people to commit crimes. Omran said some of those charges carry the death penalty.
The defendants are part of a militia that helped what officials from the transitional council said at the time were about 300 Qaddafi loyalists escape from custody in July.
Fifteen witnesses called to give evidence on Wednesday did not show up and hearings have been postponed twice since the trial began on Feb. 5, for security reasons and pending a request by some of the lawyers to review the evidence.
The accused were rounded up in July last year in Benghazi, cradle of the popular uprising, during a raid by former rebels against a cell of Qaddafi backers.
The ruling National Transitional Council said at the time that several escaped prisoners of war were hiding within the armed group in a Benghazi license-plate factory.
Rebels had seized TNT explosives and several pickup trucks equipped with machineguns, according to the same sources. The cell was blamed for a prison break and accused of planning to plant car bombs in Benghazi.