Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif appears in court – on TV

Late Libyan dictator's son and other former members of his regime face charges ranging from war crimes to corruption.

Saif Al Islam, son of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, is seen on a screen via video-link in a courtroom in Tripoli as he attends a hearing behind bars in a courtroom in Zintan on April 27, 2014. Ismail Zetouny / Reuters
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TRIPOLI // The son of late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi appeared via video-link along with 22 others on Sunday to hear charges in a Tripoli court ranging from war crimes to corruption in a major test of whether the state can implement the rule of law.

Saif Al Islam, the most high-profile of Qaddafi’s seven sons, smiled and looked confident on the link-up from a jail in the western town of Zintan where he has been held since he was captured by former rebel fighters.

His captors refuse to hand Saif over, saying they do not trust the government to ensure he would not escape, but have agreed to have him tried in a government court.

Twenty-two former Qaddafi officials were present in the court inside the heavily guarded Al Hadba prison, including former spy chief Abdullah Al Senussi. Eight others joined via videolink from the western city of Misurata.

The judge took about 20 minutes to read out the charges, accusing the defendants of giving orders to arm militias and kill peaceful protesters and locking up thousands of political opponents. They are also charged with ordering power cuts to rebel-held cities and damaging oil facilities during the eight-month uprising against Qaddafi in 2011.

Libya has struggled to establish basic institutions and the rule of law since Qaddafi’s four-decade one-man rule ended in 2011, with brigades of militias and former rebels challenging the authority of the weak central government.

The International Criminal Court and other human rights organisations worry about the fairness of Libya’s justice system, although the government won the right last year to try Qaddafi’s former spy chief at home instead of at the ICC in The Hague.

When the judge asked Saif, once seen as Qaddafi’s heir, whether he had a lawyer present to defend him, he said twice: “It’s with God.”

The court later decided to appoint a lawyer for him.

If convicted, some of the defendants could face the death penalty. It was not clear how – or if – the rebels would execute such a verdict.

Several defendants, including Al Senussi, complained they had not been given enough access to lawyers.

“I want a non-Libyan lawyer,” said the once corpulent Senussi, who appeared to have shrunk after more than a year in prison. “I want justice.”

Several lawyers complained they had not been able to spend enough time with defendants or get copies of the formal charges. The judge later ordered the state prosecutors to give them copies.

Others in the dock included the Qaddafi-era prime minister Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi, former foreign minister Abdul Ati Al Obeidi and former intelligence chief Buzeid Dorda.

Saadi Qaddafi, known as a playboy with a brief career in professional soccer who was extradited to Libya from Niger in early March, did not appear in court because prosecutors have yet to complete the investigation against him.

The court adjourned the session until May 11 after rejecting petitions from lawyers to release several defendants.

In a new sign of the growing influence of Islamists since Qaddafi’s fall, officials allowed female reporters into the courthouse only after they had put on a headscarf as a sign of modesty.

Tripoli has been mostly spared the rampant crime seen in other parts of the country. But on Sunday gunmen attacked a van belonging to a commercial bank with rocket-propelled grenades, robbing US$5 million (Dh18.4m) and snatching two employees, banking officials said.

* Reuters