Vigilante Justice Is Taking Over Libya
A cigarette shop in Tripoli. Since the revolution, the vendor has had to arm himself with an assortment of guns to keep his business protected.
"What we need are public executions," says Majdi, looking at me intently. "We’re living in a time where men steal cars and kill people every day with no repercussions. We need to send a message to these people."
We’re driving down a road in Libya's capital, Tripoli—a road that’s recently picked up a reputation for carjacking and mindless violence. Majdi’s eyes are twitching from side to side, and he’s gripping the steering wheel like he’s about to rip it off and use it to beat someone to death.
Majdi is a normal young Libyan man. He likes cars, video games, and watching soccer. And, like many other Libyans, he wants to see Saif Gaddafi killed in public.
A gun stall at a market on Al Rashid Street, Tripoli
Images of the former dictator’s son flanked by two masked guards flickered across Libyan TV screens during a rare court appearance last week, sparking protests and loud arguments in coffee shops. Crowds congregated in Tripoli, chanting and calling for the public execution of Saif, along with other officials from the Gaddafi regime. Some called for him to be killed with no trial, while others wanted to see him buried with no coffin.
When I ask Majdi if he’s serious about wanting to see public executions, he says, "There is only one thing these people understand." And he’s right on one level—Libyans do have a good understanding of public executions. Under Gaddafi, executions were like sitcoms. They took place in sports stadiums and school halls and were beamed directly to people’s front rooms with live-studio audiences who'd been bussed in from around the country.
The shows even had their own celebrities with their own catchphrases, like "Huda the Executioner"—a young loyalist who eventually became mayor of Benghazi—who's remembered for saying, "We don't need talking, we need hangings." One trial that took place in 1984 started with a student protester being tried by a revolutionary committee in a basketball court. The trial ended with Huda enthusiastically pulling on his legs as he hung from a gallows, while thousands looked on cheering.
To the outside world, bringing back this kind of thing might seem like a bad move, one that would implicitly condone the barbarism that gripped the country under Gaddafi. But Libyans like Majdi who are frustrated with the worsening post-revolutionary chaos say the outside world doesn’t understand what’s really going on in Libya. The gun dealers on the streets of Tripoli have started to stock M16s. Militias rule the streets. Angry tribes are rampaging in the south and renegade defence units have seized the country’s biggest oil terminals in the east, starving the government of much-needed revenue.
In short, Libya well and truly seems like a nation on the brink of all-out anarchy.
Militiamen surround the Foreign Ministry in April
Amid all this chaos, vigilante justice is booming. Earlier this month, a man went on a rampage down the road I live on, shooting at homeless people on a wasteland that used to be a badminton court. He killed two people. When a taxi driver tried to intervene, he was killed as well. That was at 7.30 AM in the morning. By 2 PM, the taxi driver’s family had tracked the killer down and set fire to his house.
As I looked at the burnt-out house with one of my neighbors and inhaled the smoke of DIY justice, he sighed sadly and said that, under the circumstances, the family made the right choice. "These days you can’t just wait for the government to solve your problems," he said. "You’ve got to do something."
But the trouble with this kind of DIY justice is that it’s horribly addictive. Every day Libya is sinking deeper into a vicious, black swamp of revenge killings and retribution, and at the cent of it all is the judicial system, which is failing on every level because the government can’t protect officials from violent and vengeful attacks.
Security forces are too afraid to arrest people, prosecutors are too afraid to prosecute and prison guards are too afraid to guard their prisoners. What sort of justice system does that leave you with? What sort of country is that going to leave you with?
More militia trucks from the April siege on the Foreign Ministry
A country in which arrests, when they occur, are often arbitrary. In which frequent jailbreaks mean thousands of ex-cons are on the loose. In which dozens of judicial officials have been assassinated and two courthouses have been bombed, prompting the UN to warn that the safety of judicial personnel is a "serious concern."
The UN has also warned that thousands of prisoners are only nominally under the control of the government, while thousands more remain in jails run by militias completely outside of the judicial system.
Secret jails have been discovered in customised toilet cubicles in Benghazi. People have been imprisoned in converted elementary schools and Tripoli’s city zoo has been turned into a detention centre for illegal immigrants. The UN says there is evidence of continuing torture in both government institutions and militia prisons. It also says it has gathered evidence that suggests at least ten deaths in custody this year were due to torture.
According to human rights organizations, prisoners have reported abuses that include being beaten, stabbed, squirted in the eyes with insect repellent, given electric shocks, and set on fire.
As Libya’s judicial system disintegrates and the country sinks deeper into the sludgy swamp of anarchy, normal Libyans are becoming more desperate—and the chants for capital punishment are growing louder.
Amnesty is calling for Saif to be immediately handed over to the International Criminal Court. It says, quite reasonably, that Libya is in no state to deliver justice and has warned that if "authorities proceed with unfair trials that result in the death penalty, there is a real danger that it would entrench a culture of revenge rather than the rule of law."
Clearly Amnesty has seen what's happening on Libya's streets, and can imagine the contagion for vengeance spreading to the state. But handing over high-profile prisoners from the former regime is not an option, according to Salah Marghani, Libya’s Justice Minister and a former human rights lawyer who claims angry rioters would tear down the government if he surrendered prisoners like Saif Gaddafi to the international authorities. Marghani is caught in a horrendous three-way pincer between the potentially riotous public, the outraged international community, and Libya’s anarchic militias, some of whom have made a habit of breaking into his office, others of staging armed protests in the ministry grounds.
Every day, the chaos further limits his power and the pincer squeezes more life out of him, but Marghani is clinging on to one idea: That there will be no Gaddafi-style show trial.
"Are we different or will the world see the same thing?" he says, sitting in his office with a look of tired determination. "I believe that, when the revolution started, the idea was that we were going to be different."
It remains to be seen if Libya can change its spots.
Follow Wil on Twitter: @bilgribs
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