Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Trial begins for Gaddafi sons and officials

Saif al-Islam and Saadi Gaddafi among 38 former Libya regime figures accused of war crimes during 2011 uprising

TRIPOLI, Libya — Two of Muammar Gaddafi's sons and three dozen former officials face court for alleged war crimes committed during the 2011 uprising.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and his younger brother, Saadi, face court on Monday on charges including murder and plundering state coffers. Their co-accused include the former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi and former prime ministers, al-Baghdadi al-Mahmudi and Bouzid Dorda.

For prosecutors, it is a chance to finally call to account key members of the Gaddafi regime for alleged crimes committed during the uprising and the decades of dictatorship that preceded it.

Security is tight at Tripoli's Hadba prison, which has been turned into a fortress protected by barbed wire, armored cars and machine-guns. Prosecutors say more than 200 witnesses have been interviewed and more than 40,000 pages of evidence assembled, along with video and audio evidence that allegedly shows the defendants giving instructions to security units to open fire on protesters.

For many Libyans, the Gaddafi brothers and Senussi symbolize the different faces of the former regime.

Arrested in November 2011, Saif, 41, has been held prisoner by militia leaders in the mountain town of Zintan, about 90 miles southwest of the capital. The militia persistently refused to hand him over to the central authorities, so he is expected to participate in the trial via video link.

Saif was considered the man most likely to replace his father, who was captured and killed at the end of the 2011 uprising during fighting in his hometown of Sirte. Saif earned a playboy reputation abroad, throwing lavish parties and being entertained by the British royal family at Buckingham Palace. He was controversially awarded a doctorate by the London School of Economics, after the charity he controlled gave the school a $2.5 million grant. Saif was captured by Zintan militias as he fled though the southern desert in November 2011, missing two fingers, allegedly the result of wounds from a NATO air strike.

Saadi, 40, was equally flamboyant, achieving prominence by being signed as a player by three Italian Series A football clubs (Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria), though he made just two substitute appearances in a three-year career.

Senussi, meanwhile, was viewed as Gaddafi's chief enforcer, running his intelligence network for several decades. He has already been convicted in absentia by a Paris court for the bombing of a French airliner that crashed in Niger in 1989.

The trial of the Gaddafi-era officials is already steeped in controversy. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged both Saif and Senussi with war crimes and crimes against humanity, but while judges have agreed Senussi can be tried in Tripoli, they have yet to consent to the same for Saif. The ICC was mandated by the United Nations Security Council in 2011 to investigate war crimes in Libya, and it is unclear how judges may react if Saif's trial concludes without their agreement.

"He (Saif) has been held incommunicado (in) detention for almost two-and-a-half years," John Jones, Saif's ICC-appointed lawyer, told Al Jazeera from London. Jones will not be in court on Monday. "His trial will take place by video link from Zintan, which is a fundamental violation of the right to a fair trial."

In February, Human Rights Watch accused Libya of failing to provide proper legal representation for the accused, but Libyan officials say all suspects will have access to lawyers. Last month, however, Libyan state television aired a contentious jailhouse video in which Saadi, apparently without a lawyer present, confessed to his role in "destabilizing" the country and asked for forgiveness.

Libyan officials maintain due process will be observed, with prosecution spokesperson Seddick al-Sour vowing to conduct a fair and open trial. Government spokesperson Ahmed Lamin promised the same, telling a press conference last week: "I can assure you that the trial will be according to the correct legal procedures."

Still, there are fears over how ongoing violence in Libya could impact the trial, with frequent anti-government protests fuelled by a lack of prosperity in the oil-rich country. Four international airlines have suspended Tripoli-bound flights indefinitely after rockets hit the runway last month. Despite the deteriorating security situation, many residents will be closely following the trial.

"This trial should have happened quicker but we're pleased it's happening (now). These guys need to be judged for the things they did," Tripoli student Hassan Morajea told Al Jazeera. "A lot of negative things are happening in Libya right now, but having this trial is a good development for the country."

Al Jazeera

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