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V. The People’s Court

On January 12, 2005, the General People’s Congress passed a resolution to abolish Libya’s extraordinary court, the People’s Court (Mahkamat al-Sha`b), which had heard most political and security cases and had become notorious for politically motivated judgments and biased trials.  Cases under the court’s review at the time of its closure were transferred to regular criminal courts.

Human Rights Watch and other groups welcomed the court’s abolition as an important step forward for human rights.32  But the fate of hundreds of people in prison, convicted by the People’s Court after potentially unfair trials, remains a major concern.  Those convicted for the peaceful expression of political views should be immediately released and compensated for their time in prison.  Others convicted by the People’s Court should be given new trials in Libya’s regular criminal courts with full transparency and due process guarantees.

Libya established the People’s Court in 1988 to try economic, political, and security crimes against the state.  It included an appeals court and a prosecution service, the Popular Prosecution Office.  Many cases involved charges of illegal political activities that should have been protected under the rights to free association or speech, in particular, alleged violations of Law 71, which bans any group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the 1969 revolution that brought al-Qadhafi to power.  Some cases also were against state employees accused of graft.

Libyan law required members of the People’s Court to be independent and “subject in their judgments to the law and their conscience.”33  Despite this, the court routinely violated defendants’ rights to a fair trial by limiting access to defense lawyers, allowing lengthy periods of pre-trial detention and accepting evidence based on forced confessions after torture.  Libyan lawyers said these violations also occur in the regular criminal courts, but they were more frequent and more severe in the People’s Court due to the sensitivity of the cases and the court’s inherently political nature.  Defendants could appeal to the Supreme Court only in the case of a death sentence.  By 2004, disturbed by ongoing violations of Libyan law, some Libyan lawyers refused to take cases before the People’s Court.

In January 2005, the General People’s Congress abolished Libya’s extraordinary court, the People’s Court, which had heard most political and security cases and was notorious for politically motivated judgments and biased trials. Cases under the court’s review at the time of its closure were transferred to regular criminal courts, like this Court of Appeals in Benghazi.
(c) Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch 2005

“We couldn’t even see the file in cases before the People’s Court,” one lawyer told Human Rights Watch.  “The law didn’t ban us, but it was the procedures of the authorities, which were arbitrary and depended on their mood.”34

Human Rights Watch interviewed five prisoners who were tried and convicted by the People’s Court.  Four of them complained of torture during the investigation stage and due process violations in their case, such as restricted access to a lawyer.  On October 12, 2005, Human Rights Watch asked the Libyan government if it had conducted investigations into these torture allegations but, as of January 10, 2006, the government had not replied.35

Two examples were the prisoners Ahmad Muhammad Khair Faraj al-Zalawi and Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, currently serving life sentences for organizing a political group that opposed the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution.  According to al-Sharif, interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Benghazi’s al-Kuweifia prison, the authorities arrested him, al-Zalawi and twelve other men on July 21, 2000, on charges of using the Ahli Benghazi Football Club as a cover for their political group.  Al-Sharif denied involvement in any political activity and said internal security forces compelled him to confess after three months of torture in Benghazi.  On June 22, 2001, the People’s Court sentenced him, al-Zalawi and a third man, `Abd al-Salam `Abd al-Salam Jum`a al-Jamaty, to death.  The sentences were later commuted to life in prison but, on December 24, 2004, al-Sherif said, al-Gamaty committed suicide.

“We were convicted by the People’s Court, which has been closed, but its sentence is still upon us,” al-She\arif told Human Rights Watch.36

The case of 152 men arrested in 1988 for their membership in the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrates the shortcomings of the People’s Court and its prosecution office.  The authorities held the men for more than two years in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers.  Some said they were tortured.37

The People’s Court tried the case in March 2001.  In February 2002, the court sentenced eleven of the men to ten years in prison and seventy-three of them to life.  The two leaders of the brotherhood received the death penalty, and they are still on death row.  Sixty-six of the defendants were acquitted.  In October 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the eighty-six Muslim Brotherhood members would receive a new trial, and the new trial was proceeding as this report went to press.  On April 18, 2004, al-Qadhafi gave a speech to the Supreme Council for Judicial Authority and other high-ranking members of the judiciary, in which he called for a number of legal reforms, including the abolition of the People’s Court.  Nine months later, in its January 2005 session, the Basic People’s Congress passed a resolution closing the court and its prosecution service.

During the Human Rights Watch visit to Libya in April-May 2005, justice officials explained that the government had transferred all cases before the People’s Court as of January 2005, whether they were in the trial phase or on appeal, to regular criminal courts.  Cases that the People’s Court already had ruled on, however, would not be reviewed.  Libyan authorities did not provide country-wide figures on the number of cases transferred, but officials from the Benghazi district court said they had received “more than ten cases” from the Benghazi People’s Court.  Some of these cases went to the appeals court and some went to the court of first instance, they said.38

When explaining the court’s closure, justice officials said the People’s Court performed a particular role after the 1969 revolution and that it was no longer required.  “The People’s Court was established under special circumstances,” one official said.  He added, “the circumstances for this court were no longer in place.”39  According to Secretary of Justice `Ali `Umar Abu Bakr, the court was “in place for a certain historic period,” although he did not elaborate on what particular characteristics that period had or how they had changed.40

The government also transferred judges and prosecutors from the People’s Court to the criminal court system, justice officials said.  Some court staff returned to non-legal jobs they had held prior to their assignment with the People’s Court.  A former president of the People’s Court, Husni al-Wahaishi, became head of the newly formed Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights in the General People’s Congress.

Some Libyan lawyers complained quietly and on condition of anonymity to Human Rights Watch about al-Wahaishi’s appointment, expressing concern that, given his previous involvement in what they viewed as a political court that disrespected due process norms, he would not perform his tasks on the new human rights committee in an objective and professional way.  “It places the credibility of the process in doubt,” one lawyer said.41  The Qadhafi Foundation was more outspoken, publicly criticizing his appointment.42

In late October 2005, 135 prisoners in Abu Salim prison reportedly staged a protest to demand that their cases get retried, as the Supreme Court had recently granted a new trial for the eighty-six members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  They had also been convicted by the People’s Court, they said.43

In its meetings with Libyan officials, Human Rights Watch welcomed the closure of the People’s Court, but urged the authorities to release all individuals convicted by the court for the peaceful expression of critical views.  Others convicted by the court should be granted a new trial with full transparency and due process guarantees.  Human Rights Watch subsequently asked the Libyan government how many people were in prison based on convictions by the People’s Court, but, as of January 10, 2006, the government had not replied.44

[32] Human Rights Watch, “Reforms Welcome, But Concerns Remain,” May 23, 2005, and Amnesty International, “Libya: Abolition of People’s Court is an Important Step,” Public Statement, January 13, 2005.

[33] Law 5 of 1988, article 5.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Libyan lawyer, Tripoli, April 28, 2005.

[35] Human Rights Watch memo to the Government of Libya, October 12, 2005.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad `Abd al-Salam al-`Alim al-Sharif, al-Kuweifia prison, Benghazi, April 23, 2005.

[37] Former head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salim Abu Hanak, incarcerated in Abu Salim prison, told Human Rights Watch that government agents tortured him after his arrest in June 1998.  (Human Rights Watch interview with Salim Abu Hanak, Abu Salim prison, Tripoli, May 10, 2005.)  See also Amnesty International, Libya: Time to Make Human Rights a Reality, August 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with Benghazi justice officials, Benghazi, April 23, 2005.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with Libyan lawyers and judges, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Secretary of Justice `Ali `Umar Abu Bakr, Tripoli, April 28, 2005.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Libyan lawyers, Tripoli, April 28, 2005.

[42] Libya Human and Political Development Forum, “2004 Libya Human Development Report,” November 2, 2005.  Available at, as of December 15, 2005.

[43] “Kamal al-Marjari: Abu Salim Prisoners End Their Sit-in,” Akhbar Libya, October 24, 2005,, accessed October 25, 2005.

[44] Human Rights Watch memo to the Government of Libya, October 12, 2005.

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