Future of Libya's detained loyalists uncertain

Lines blur in post-Qaddafi Libya, as dysfunctional legal system and changing allegiances leave loyalists with uncertain future.

NTC fighters engage in street battles in Sirte on Friday as they try to wrest control of the city from forces loyal to Qaddafi.
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MISURATA, LIBYA // Abdeladhib Dabba would love to join National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters in this city. But first he must get out of their jail.

Arrested while serving with volunteer loyalist forces, Mr Dabba, 25, said that he deserves freedom.

He insisted he was not fighting for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

"I was fighting because I was told lies: that the rebels were foreign mercenaries. It was on the radio," he said.

Mr Dabba is among thousands held in jails and makeshift detention centres, accused of serving Qaddafi's regime. Getting prisoners out of limbo and into court would mark an advance by transitional leaders from revolution towards rule of law.A host of complications stand in the way.

The ruling NTC has struggled to establish state institutions and rein in local militias, who are heavily armed and jockeying for influence.

Meanwhile, those militias have been fighting loyalist remnants at Sirte and Bani Walid, with more prisoners expected after the cities fall.

That prospect adds urgency to the need for a functioning judicial system. According to Ahmed Darrat, Libya's acting interior minister, a court structure was being put in place and trials of detainees would begin soon.

By now, some had been waiting for months. The bulk of about 700 detainees in Misurata were arrested in March, said Faouzi Diab, a lawyer who is in charge of investigations for the city's security committee. It was around that time that a police officer in Misurata named Amr Assid left abruptly for his home city of Tripoli.

"I was a cop under the old regime, and the regime changed," he said. "I left Misurata because my office stopped working."

However, revolutionary officials in Misurata say that Mr Assid has been accused of spying on dissidents for Col Qaddafi's secret police.

Last month Mr Assid was arrested in Tripoli and brought to Misurata for investigation.

Misurata revolutionary authorities have carried out arrests of alleged "fifth columnists" - the favoured term - based on accusations by ordinary citizens, with investigations consisting mainly of questioning the accused, Mr Diab said.

Nearly all of the accused so far have been found suspect enough to be detained for eventual trials, he said. Of about 700 detainees, only about 50 have been freed following questioning.

Mr Diab acknowledged that he was operating in a legal vacuum.

"We don't really have law right now, and no constitution," he said. "We've asked for a temporary law to be put in place. We need to respect the rights even of fifth columnists."

Mr Assid was placed in Misurata's Al Wahada school, which has been converted to a detention centre, with the children's desks piled outside to make room for about 600 prisoners.

After seven days, Mr Assid had still not been questioned. He is a short man, nearing retirement at age 60, with thick glasses and a neat grey beard. At first cheerful, he grew troubled when asked about the accusation against him.

"I'm not a fifth columnist. I'm a cop, and that's all," he said. "If the regime changes, I work for the new regime, naturally."

Mr Assid was confident that he would be cleared and had no complaints about conditions in the detention centre.

However, detainees in six of 20 detention centres in Tripoli visited last month by Human Rights Watch reported alleged abuses, including beatings and electric shocks, according to a report published by the organisation two weeks ago.

In the chaos of war, local militias have rounded up thousands of suspected loyalist fighters, with dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan migrants especially targeted, the report said.

NTC authorities have called on militias to respect the human rights of detainees and ordered the formal closure of Col Qaddafi's system of state security courts, which specialised in jailing critics of his regime.

The work left to new judicial authorities includes handling tricky cases like that of Mr Dabba, who is confined in a small classroom with Mr Assid and several other men.

For months Mr Dabba listened from his hometown, Zliten, to state media that described rebel fighters as "foreigners killing the army and families", he said.

Disregarding conflicting television reports on Al Jazeera and rumours from nearby Misurata, in July he joined a volunteer group of 30 fighters supporting government troops.

"At first, our orders were to just do searches," he said. "Then it became something else."

His shock of black hair was untidy and his eyes were red with fatigue. He spoke quietly into his chest, as if afraid of his own voice.

He was given a Kalashnikov but never took part in battle, he said.

In August, Mr Dabba's group of 30 volunteer fighters were surprised by NTC forces on the outskirts of Misurata, and surrendered. To his surprise, his enemies were Libyans.

"Today I hope there will be a new regime, a constitution, media that don't tell lies," he said.

"I'd like to join the revolutionaries. But it's hard; I have to solve my problem."