Libya put 41 loyalists of dead dictator Moamer Kadhafi on trial on Sunday, in the first legal proceedings launched against members of the former regime ousted last year in a bloody conflict.
The accused, mostly civilians, appeared in a military court in the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising against Kadhafi that ended on October 20 with his killing in his hometown of Sirte.
Their trial comes as human rights groups have raised concerns over Libya’s judicial system and also accused former rebels of “torturing” Kadhafi loyalists in custody.
“It is the first trial concerning the February 17 revolution,” judge Colonel Ali al-Hamida said at the start of the proceedings, referring to the day when the anti-Kadhafi conflict erupted in Benghazi.
The 41 men are accused of “supporting the Kadhafi regime in its attempts to crush the popular revolt, killing people, breaking of national unity, as well as helping prisoners to escape and setting up criminal gangs.”
An AFP correspondent attending the proceedings said the first session of the trial was held under tight security.
The 15-lawyer defence team for the accused contested the proceedings, saying most of the accused were civilians but that they were being prosecuted in a military court.
The case was later adjourned to February 15, with the military prosecutor saying the accused would have fair trials.
“All conditions exist to guarantee that the accused get justice,” Yusuf al-Asifar told AFP.
But Hussein Gheniwa, a lawyer defending five of the accused, said the military court was “not competent” to handle the case.
“We hope that in the next session the question of the court’s competency will be addressed. We are confident that the court will decide that it is not competent,” he told AFP.
But he expressed optimism over Libya’s justice system, saying “the legal proceedings will not be influenced by public opinion” which at the moment is strong given the fact that it is a trial of pro-Kadhafi men.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2012, 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 Moamer Kadhafi,” the watchdog said.
HRW has, along with Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), accused former rebels who helped topple Kadhafi’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.
Amnesty and MSF have also charged that the militias use “widespread torture” against their prisoners in cities such as Tripoli and Misrata and in smaller towns like Ghariyan.
MSF even suspended its work in Misrata over allegations of torture in prisons there.
Libyan officials insist the country’s judiciary is “competent” to handle the legal cases of former regime members, including putting on trial Kadhafi’s most prominent son, Seif al-Islam.
Seif, who was arrested on November 19, is in the custody of the military council of Zintan, a town 180 kilometres (110 miles), southwest of Tripoli.
He is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed during last year’s conflict.