TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A Libyan military court on Monday handed down long prison terms to a group of men from the former Soviet Union accused of serving as mercenaries for ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi in last year's war.
One Russian man, deemed the group's coordinator, was sentenced to life in prison, the court heard. Another Russian, three Belarussians and 19 Ukrainians were handed sentences of 10 years with hard labour. They had denied the charges.
The military trial was the first of its kind in Libya since a popular revolt ousted Gaddafi last year. The new government is trying to prove its judicial process is robust enough to try high-profile Gaddafi loyalists including his son Saif al-Islam.
"This is the worst kind of sentence," said Belarussian ambassador Anatoly Stepus who was present at the hearing. "We thought that even if they were sentenced it would not be so strict. They have suffered a lot."
The 24 men, who were arrested in Tripoli in August as Gaddafi's forces fled, were found guilty of readying ground-to-air missiles for use against NATO fighters which supported the uprising against the former strongman, who ruled for 42 years.
Ukrainian ambassador Mykola Nahornyi told Reuters the men had come to Libya to work in the oil sector but after the war broke out were forced to stay in the country and work on building anti-aircraft material.
"We have evidence which the court has on file that they were threatened with weapons by Gaddafi forces to (take part in) the building and maintenance of anti-aircraft weapons," Nahornyi said, adding that the defendants would appeal.
The last of the fighting in Libya ended in October when Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels.
Standing in a cage in the Courts Complex in Tripoli, the accused, most of them middle-aged and greying, acknowledged their presence when the judge called out their names. When the verdict was translated into Russian, the defendants looked shocked and one clasped his hand to his mouth.
According to Western security officials, both Gaddafi's forces and the rebels fighting them hired private military contractors to bolster their forces.
They said small numbers of private contractors turned up on the ground in Libya to work with rebels, while Gaddafi had long used foreign freelancers, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.
Reporting by Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Writing by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Rosalind Russell