TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s government showcased a freshly painted courtroom in Tripoli on Tuesday in an attempt to demonstrate that it is fit to try one of Muammar Gaddafi’s most prominent sons instead of handing him over to the International Criminal Court.
Saif al-Islam has been in a secret prison since fighters caught him last year. Libya has resisted handing him over to The Hague, saying he has to face justice on Libyan soil.
“We will respect the international law but we do have a lot of respect for our Libyan law and I guarantee you there will be no problem,” Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib told reporters after touring the venue, a former military school.
The school had been newly painted in the tricolor post-Gaddafi flag and soldiers lined up neatly to pose for television cameras. Inside, a small courtroom smelled of fresh paint, adorned with newly fitted wall-to-wall carpeting and furniture.
The tour was part of the government’s efforts to highlight its preparedness for the trial of former Gaddafi aides, yet, ironically, the government spokesman said Saif al-Islam’s trial could end up taking place in a different venue altogether.
On Tuesday, the war crimes court said Libya had asked the ICC to postpone its order to surrender Saif al-Islam so that it could formally appeal and hold the trial in Tripoli.
“The Libyan Government regards the trial of Saif al-Islam and (former intelligence chief) Abdullah Al-Senussi as a matter of the highest national importance,” the government said in its request to the ICC, according to an ICC statement on Tuesday.
It said this was important “not only in bringing justice for the Libyan people but also in demonstrating that the new Libyan justice system is capable of conducting fair trials (that meet all applicable international standards) in complex cases”.
Rights groups have put pressure on Libya’s new rulers to explain the procedure of Saif al-Islam’s trial. But the prime minister and his entourage were tightlipped on the details.
“This is not a matter that we can just announce simply, a lot of process goes into it,” said Deputy Justice Minister Khalifa Ashour.
Marek Marczynski, an Amnesty International researcher, said Libya should comply with the ICC ruling.
“The main thing is not that if the Libyan administration can organise a courtroom,” he told Reuters. “The main thing is the Libyan justice system: is it able to deliver justice to the highest standard of international law.”
The ICC issued a warrant for Saif al-Islam in June after prosecutors accused him and others of involvement in the killing of protesters during the revolt that toppled his father.
The ICC last week rejected Libya’s request to postpone the surrender of Saif al-Islam to face war crimes charges. The court ordered Tripoli to “comply with its obligations to enforce the warrant of arrest” and surrender him without delay.
A U.N. Security Council Resolution obliges Libya to cooperate with the court, the ICC says, and Tripoli’s failure to hand him over could result in it being reported to the Council.
He faces the death penalty if found guilty by a Libyan court, but only a prison term if convicted by the ICC.
Since the elder Gaddafi was killed after being captured alive by rebel fighters, competing militias have yet to lay down their arms and Western human rights organisations have accused them of carrying out numerous extra-judicial executions and other abuses, raising questions about the rule of law.
Saif al-Islam was caught in the desert by the Zintan fighter brigade. He was disguised as a shepherd and flown back to Zintan, 160 kilometers (99 miles) west of Tripoli.
Marczynski said Libya’s justice system was still in disarray just months after the overthrow of its long-serving leader.
“This is a legal obligation based on the UN security council,” he said. “The ICC could refer this situation to the UN security council instead if they do not decide to cooperate.”
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Fred Abrams who visited Saif al-Islam in his Zintan prison in December said that this could be an opportunity for Libya to prove that it has turned its back on the old Gaddafi-style governance.
“The symbolism of Saif’s case (to hand him to the ICC) is that it’s a sign that the new Libya will respect human rights and the rule of law. That’s what they say their revolution is about,” Abrams said.
“A nice looking courtroom is least of the worries, but the fundamental question is of a malfunctioning judicial system that lacked independence under Gaddafi and now barely functioning after his fall.”
Additional reporting by Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Editing by Maria Golovnina