Lifts that pause between floors and the sound of keys locking doors never fail to make Ali Elakermi’s heart race. Spending 30 years as a political prisoner in Libya’s notorious Abu Salim jail has left him with a fear of enclosed spaces.
There are plenty of physical scars, too. Elakermi was beaten and tortured following his arrest for being a member of an Islamic political party in 1973, at age 22, during a purge of intellectuals, Islamists and others by then-leader Muammar Gaddafi.
He was cut with razor blades, and his wounds were rubbed with salt by his captors. Elakermi and other inmates in the Tripoli jail were forced to listen for hours to recordings of Gaddafi’s speeches.
“They played them the whole day. Then they played revolutionary songs. Some prisoners lost their minds,” said Elakermi. To stay sane, he taught French to an Italian detainee who, in return, tutored him in Italian.
Released in 2002, Elakermi is Libya’s second-longest-serving political prisoner. One of the people he blames for his ordeal is due to appear in a Tripoli court on 19 September
Abdullah Al-Sanussi, the former head of Libyan military intelligence and Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, is accused of crimes at Abu Salim, including orchestrating the massacre of more than 1,200 prisoners in 1996. He is expected to be joined in the dock by around 21 others from Gaddafi’s inner circle, including Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam. (Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011.)
The hearing is entirely administrative. Prosecutors will formally hand over details of their investigation to the pre-trial chamber where judges will, for the first time, examine the evidence and decide if the cases can proceed to trial.
The formal charges are not yet clear, but will likely include murder, persecution, incitement to rape, and incitement to kill civilians and demonstrators who took to the streets during Libya’s Arab Spring. Other charges could include financial corruption, misusing public funds and bringing in mercenaries from abroad.
Courts tussling over trial
The hearing will be watched with interest - and concern - by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where Sanussi and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi are also accused of the murder and persecution of demonstrators in Tripoli, Zawiya, Benghazi, Misrata and elsewhere in Libya during the February 2011 revolution.
The ICC was set up to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity in countries where the state is unwilling or unable to prosecute. But Libya insists it can carry out fair trials and has challenged the admissibility of the ICC’s case.
The court does not agree. After much legal wrangling, judges in May rejected Libya’s bid to keep Gaddafi - but they have yet to make a final decision on Sanussi.
Though Libya is not an ICC member, the court intervened at the request of the UN Security Council.
But neither man seems likely to appear in The Hague anytime soon.
“Libya has clearly stated they will not hand them over,” said Hanan Salah, the Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“It is very disconcerting to hear them publically saying that under no circumstances are they handing them over to the ICC, but are not able to prove they are able and willing to conduct a fair trial. Libya is obliged to cooperate with the ICC. Failing to do so is a very serious issue.”
On the streets of Tripoli, where residents suffer frequent electricity blackouts, interruptions to the water supply and growing insecurity caused by out-of-control militias, one resident says he doubts the government would further antagonize the fed-up population by handing over Gaddafi and Sanussi.
“The government is unlikely to give them to The Hague as they are already under a lot of pressure from the street,” said Omar Almosmary, a journalist originally from Benghazi. “The Libyan people will be disappointed if they send them to the ICC because people want revenge.”
Libyan political affairs analyst Tarek Magerisi agrees that popular opinion favours trying Gaddafi and Sanussi in Libya where, if found guilty, they would be executed.
“Everybody would be furious if they sent them to The Hague, and the last bit of hope people have in the government would be gone,” Magerisi said. “People would accuse them of kowtowing to the international community.
“The popular impression is that the ICC isn’t a real court, that they will spend eight years on trial, be found guilty of crimes done to foreigners, not Libyans, then sit in a plush jail cell.”
Elakermi, who says he heard fellow inmates being brutally killed during the Abu Salim massacre, wants a local trial for Sanussi.
“As a victim, I prefer that this gentleman be judged in Libya,” said Elakermi.
“He should enjoy every possibility to defend himself. Everything should be clear and fair. He has the right to have a fair court, but he has to pay for what he has done. Some of the guards, I forgive them. The guard who beat me, I forgive him. But there are some crimes that you cannot forgive.”
A chaotic, dysfunctional judicial system where judges and lawyers are routinely threatened makes it impossible for either man to get a fair trial, according to HRW. Salah cited a recent attack in Misrata on a female lawyer working on a child kidnapping case.
“She was viciously attacked in front of court after she left the session, and her father was kidnapped and tortured,” Salah said.
Salah has met Gaddafi loyalists imprisoned after the fall of Tripoli who have never seen a lawyer or judge.
Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi himself has been detained for two years in a Zintan prison without a lawyer. Salah says he is unlikely to find a local lawyer willing to take his case while he remains in Zintan, where he is being held by the Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atri militia group, which captured him. The militia is refusing to hand him over to Tripoli, let alone the ICC.
In a separate case, Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atri accused Gaddafi of undermining state security by meeting with four representatives of the ICC. That case has been repeatedly adjourned as the ICC staff are not in the country to answer the charges against them.
The problems with Libya’s judicial system are of great concern to analysts like Magerisi, who say that fixing them should be a priority.
“The rule of law is necessary,” he said. “We can’t have these kangaroo courts. They prove that this revolution is no different than [Muammar] Gadaffi’s.”
Back in Tripoli, Ali Elakermi has other priorities. He has founded the Libyan Association for the Prisoners of Opinion and is determined to ensure the younger generation does not forget what happened in places like Abu Salim. He takes visitors, including his young daughter, to the prison to explain what happened there.
“We want to teach them the price we paid and that they have to protect the revolution,” he said. “It is easy to destroy a regime but difficult to build another. We have to do our best for reconciliation. But Sanussi - no one in Libya forgives him. For mothers who lost their sons, how can you ask them to forgive?”