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Libyans seek justice, but who goes and who stays? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ian Black in Tripoli   
Thursday, 06 October 2011 13:36

A purge of Gaddafi collaborators to end corruption and cronyism risks putting on trial people needed to help run the country


Protest at Libya's National Oil Corporation
Employees of Libya's National Oil Corporation shout slogans during a protest outside the company's Tripoli headquarters. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Libya's National Oil Corporation is housed in an imposing building near Tripoli's old royal palace, its concrete and mirrored glass facade a monument to the country's wealth and a face of modernity in a ramshackle capital. And many of its employees are furious.

In the courtyard outside, hundreds gathered one hot morning this week to demand that the principles of the revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi be implemented in their own workplace – and across free Libya. "No to corruption," they chanted, as armed rebels looked on. "Purges before reconstruction," went their punchiest slogan.

Najwa Bishti, of the NOC contracts department, was suspended and interrogated by the secret police in 2009 for complaining about irregularities in the sale of an oil refinery. "What we are against is corrupt people who loot our wealth and trade in our blood," she raged. "Now we need clean people who didn't have a relationship with the previous regime. The worst of them must be tried and put in prison."

Complaints about corruption, cronyism and mismanagement are rife and, although Libyans are still euphoric at the downfall of the man they call "the tyrant", many warn that building a better future needs to start with exposing past misdeeds.

Next in line for a reckoning are what they call mutasaliqeen (climbers or opportunists), Gaddafi loyalists who now paint themselves as supporters of the revolution. "These are people who were completely green [the signature colour of the old Jamahiriya (Gaddafi's "state of the masses")] and they want to change colour like chameleons," laughed activist Ahmed al-Ghazali.

There is anger too at Gumhouria Bank, the country's biggest bank. Employees are calling for the sacking of general manager Abdulfatah Ghaffar, who managed the finances of the "brother leader" until the very end and bankrolled petrol-smuggling from Tunisia. "He treated us like slaves and gave Gaddafi everything he needed," said spokesman Kamal Ahmed. "This man is a symbol of the old regime and he must go."

Protesters like these are targeting executives at the mobile-phone provider Libyana, in hospitals, universities and at other state entities all over Libya.

Charges of collaboration with Gaddafi echo the experience of eastern European countries after 1989. Resentment of the August revolutionaries is Libya's equivalent of those French résistants de la dernière heure who fought the Nazis only at the very end. And then there is the familiar settling of scores under the cover of justice. "I know a very efficient bank manager who was removed purely for vengeance," sighs a man who was himself a regime trusty and now keeps a sensibly low profile.

Issa Koussa, younger brother of the more famous Moussa – the former foreign minister and intelligence chief who defected to Britain in March – was a senior Gaddafi aide who tried and failed to reinvent himself as a democrat. He is now locked up in a grim-looking former drug rehabilitation centre near his palatial home in Tajoura, east of the capital.

Thousands more Gaddafi loyalists, including many members of the hated revolutionary committees, are behind bars, some at Tripoli's Mitiga air base. Koussa senior is in Qatar and unlikely to be coming back any time soon.

Libya's western supporters are anxious to avoid the errors – only belatedly acknowledged – that were made in postwar Iraq, where the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's army and the wholesale sacking of Ba'ath party officials caused a breakdown in security, government and administration and helped fuel years of insurgency.

And the Libyan version, which is "owned" by the Libyans themselves, as Nato governments keep repeating, looks like being a far more limited programme of compulsory redundancies in sectors like the old regular army, now being sidelined by the ragtag but better-equipped rebel brigades.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the widely respected president of the National Transitional Council (NTC), has set the non-retributive tone, saying that any Libyan who killed or stole public money under Gaddafi must be held to account. Having served as minister of justice until going over to the opposition in February, he has won plaudits for pledging that he is ready to face trial himself.

For some, though, this approach is too lenient. "The NTC is bending over backwards to be conciliatory but it's ridiculous when it involves people who only joined the opposition in the final days," argues one disgruntled supporter. "This is going to create problems. The revolutionaries didn't fight and see their friends die to see the same people stay in power."

Sami Khaskhusha, a university lecturer, is even blunter: "We cannot behave like Gandhi or Jesus Christ," he sneers. "You can't kill Al Capone and leave all the other hooligans running around. A revolution has to mean a new start." Others warn darkly of a loyalist "fifth column".

The obvious risk though is that too comprehensive a purge will cull experienced managers and experts. And the fact is that almost everyone had dealings with and was tainted by Gaddafi and the system he dominated.

It is a black mark against Mahmoud Jibril, the NTC's unpopular prime minister designate, that he worked on economic development with Saif al-Islam, the leader's second son, London School of Economics postgraduate and erstwhile reformist, who is now leading diehard resistance in Bani Walid.

So the criteria for who goes and who stays will, in the end, have to be a matter of judgment. "Everyone worked in a Gaddafi entity," argues Salam Tekbali, a US-Libyan legal adviser. "It's a question of what their attitude was and what they did when they were there."

In one area, however, there are no shades of grey. Those with "blood on their hands" will stand trial and face punishment, probably the death penalty. No one speaks of leniency for Gaddafi, for Saif al-Islam or for the hated intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, all wanted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity.

And Libyans also want to see them in the dock at home. "In the Hague they will only try Gaddafi for what he did here in February and March," said Mustafa Driza, a retired ambassador. "But he needs to face justice for what he did to this country for 42 years."

Hanna al-Gallal, a law lecturer from Benghazi, believes there could, one day, be some kind of Libyan truth and reconciliation commission to confront the past and heal wounds. But not yet. "We need transitional justice to deal with long-term abuses," she said. "You can't just ask Libyans to forgive. It's not only what people did in the past. It's what they are still doing now."

Activists monitoring the progress of the revolution are adamant that trials for Gaddafi loyalists are a non-negotiable demand. "The Libyan people need to see that there is justice," warned Mustafa Ghariyani, a telecoms engineer. "If criminals from the old regime are hanged then people will be satisfied – and the opportunists will be scared."


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