Gaddafi regime rears its ugly head as political duel leaves Libya rudderless
In a humid Tripoli courtroom, some of the most feared pillars of Muammar Gaddafi's regime awaited sentencing earlier this week.
Dressed in blue prison garb and looking haggard after years in detention, the dozens of officials, including former intelligence chiefs, prime ministers and diplomats, appeared resigned to their fate. Missing, however, was the most recognisable person on trial: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Gaddafi's youngest son and the man many once believed would succeed his father as ruler of Libya.
Captured by militiamen from the north-western town of Zintan in late 2011 as his tried to escape the country dressed as a desert nomad, Saif al-Islam is believed to still be held by the same men who have refused to hand him over to Tripoli.
The court ruled that Saif al-Islam face a firing squad for charges relating to attempts to snuff out the 2011 uprising that eventually brought his father's 42-year-old regime to an end. Saif al-Islam, his father's spy chief Abdallah al-Senussi and 35 other officials, including former prime ministers, diplomats and members of Libya's various security agencies, were charged with offences, including indiscriminate shelling, incitement to rape, giving orders to open fire on protesters and recruiting mercenaries. Gaddafi's son was one of nine sentenced to death.
Before the uprising, several figures, both in and outside Libya, feted Saif al-Islam as a progressive who had started to prise open Libya's economy, and spoke the language of reform after decades of his father's idiosyncratic dictatorship. But many of his champions were aghast when Saif al-Islam delivered fiery speeches against anti-regime protesters who had taken to the streets across Libya in the spring of 2011, denouncing them as "rats".
The International Criminal Court sought to extradite Gaddafi for trial in The Hague, in part because of worries he would not get a fair trial at home. The conflict that has wracked Libya for the last year, underpinned by a political power struggle between two rival governments, one internationally recognised and the other self-declared, has brought its institutions to a near standstill. The justice system, in particular, has suffered in a country where a constellation of militias hold sway, menacing legislators, judges, lawyers and prosecutors. The Libyan authorities refused the ICC's requests. Gaddafi appeared in court via video link from Zintan when the trial began last spring.
The mass trial, whose proceedings were televised in Libya, was dogged with controversy from the beginning. Human rights groups and the International Criminal Court raised concerns about its standards and the trial was postponed several times. While some Libyans cheered this week's verdicts and sentences, others gloomily interpreted them as a metaphor for what the country has become four years after the fall of Gaddafi.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was "deeply disturbed" by the court's rulings, adding that the trial failed to meet international standards for due process. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlighted how flawed the trial had been, noting reported intimidation of witnesses, a lack of access to legal counsel and no presentation of witnesses or documents in open court. Gaddafi's lawyer slammed it as a "complete show trial, a farce".
The sentences also threatened to open old wounds. In some Libyan towns noted for their loyalty to the old regime in 2011, demonstrators raised Gaddafi's green flag in protest over the court's decisions. Similar scenes played out in Cairo, where several of Gaddafi's apparatchiks fled after his ousting.
The verdicts come at a particularly volatile time. Libya is trapped in a civil war driven by a myriad of armed factions which has led to the collapse of central authority and a split in state institutions for the past year. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced or driven into exile.
UN efforts to resolve the political crisis fuelling the conflict have stalled. Islamic State militants see opportunity in the resulting chaos and have expanded their presence near the country's oil crescent, prompting fears they could seize facilities there.
Low global energy prices coupled with hobbled production means oil-rich Libya is feeling the pinch. With its central bank having to eat into foreign reserves to cover the massive public sector and subsidies system left over from Gaddafi, some predict the country could go broke within a few years.
The situation is so grim that is not uncommon to hear Libyans speak wistfully of life before the 2011 revolution, though this is not necessarily rooted in nostalgia for the old regime. A substantial minority, however, remain unabashed in their support for Gaddafi and his system. Key regime figures who have been living in exile since 2011 have grown more assertive in recent months, trying to tap the rising discontent back home.
In some towns, rallies protesting the chaos have taken place with demonstrators holding aloft banners bearing Saif al-Islam's face.
Given he is being held by a militia that does not recognise the court that handed down the death penalty, Gaddafi is unlikely to face execution any time soon.
The question of what happens to the man once considered Muammar Gaddafi's heir apparent will loom over Libya for some time yet.