In Libya, justice elusive on uprising's anniversary

Thousands of Libyans celebrate the second anniversary of the Libyan uprising at Martyrs square on February 17, 2013, in Tripoli. Getty Images

BENGHAZI, Libya Col. Faraj el-Dersi, who defected to the rebel side from Muammar Qaddafi's police force, was gunned down late last year on the streets of Benghazi, and he bled to death in the arms of his teenage daughter.

As Libya on Sunday marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Qaddafi, the death of el-Dersi and nearly 40 other similar slayings are seen as evidence that some in the country are too impatient for a political system that has yet to deliver justice and national reconciliation.

Suspicion in many of the killings of senior security and military officials has fallen on Islamists who were brutally suppressed under Qaddafi. Now, they have become among the most powerful groups in the new Libya, particularly in the east, with heavily armed militias at their command.

And they are settling old scores themselves, rather than wait for transitional justice — the process of society punishing or forgiving the abuses of the old regime.

Mustafa al-Kufi, a 59-year-old former prisoner and political activist, said the various post-Qaddafi governments and the current parliament are all fearful that if they head down the path of transitional justice, many members of the ruling class would be among those punished for past wrongdoing.

"This is a very pressing issue and a core demand in the street," said al-Kufi, who spent 12 years in prison under Qaddafi.

"We need to know who did what and then ask families of the victims for forgiveness. But since this didn't take place, violence will continue because there is no justice.

Like other Arab countries that ousted authoritarian leaders, Libya is now mired in a chaotic and violent transition to a new society. It is plagued by unruly and heavily armed militias that have slowly come under a unified command but remain filled with hard-liners who were in the front line in the war against Qaddafi.

The transition is further complicated by an autonomy movement in the oil-rich east, a central government too weak to exert its authority across the vast desert nation, and heavily armed Islamic extremists who are pressing to fill a power vacuum.

The civil war swept Qaddafi from power, but the bitterness and rage lingers in a country where the authoritarian government imprisoned, tortured and killed its opponents.

Hana al-Gallal, a prominent Benghazi lawyer, said allowing old regime figures to be part of the new order will only fuel more violence.

"Those whose sons were killed, their dreams shattered by the Qaddafi regime, will seek revenge when they see them back in power," she said. "The result is assassinations."

Some of the anger is directed at those who were in the old government — from low-level police officials to ex-ministers who are now police chiefs and lawmakers. That has prompted a push to prevent those with ties to the former leadership from serving in positions of power.

Libya's parliament, the General National Congress, is debating a draft bill that would bar anyone deemed to have had ties to the former regime from state institutions for 10 years. A version of the draft law published on the GNC's website last week listed 36 reasons for excluding Libyans from political life.

They include those who participated in Qaddafi's coup in 1969; members of the notorious Revolutionary Guards, which were formed to hunt down the dictator's opponents; those who took part in reform efforts in the 2000s led by Qaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam; and those who worked for leading magazines, newspapers, news agencies or served as an ambassador under Qaddafi.

The bill's supporters say such sweeping measures are needed to allow the ministries and state institutions in the fledgling democracy to develop free of the toxic influence and corruption of the Qaddafi era and to stop the cycles of bloodshed like what happened in Benghazi.

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