A Political Court: The ICC, Gaddafi, and Libyan Rebel War Crimes

Last month, to much fanfare, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Muammar al-Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, and Libyan military intelligence chief Abdullah Al-Senussi. ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo had filed an application for the warrants in May. Among those celebrating the court’s decision was, of course, the Libyan opposition’s National Transitional Council (NTC), which promised to assemble a special commando unit to arrest Gaddafi. The head of the NTC Executive Council, Mahmud Jibril, even flew to The Hague to mark the occasion. The ICC website features a photograph of Moreno-Ocampo shaking hands with Jibril on the steps of the court.

(source: ICC)

Hardly anything could better illustrate the essentially political nature of the International Criminal Court. As is well known, Libyan government forces and alleged mercenaries in the pay of the Libyan government have been accused in media reports of deliberately killing civilians and committing other atrocities. These reports have served as the justification for western military intervention in Libya under the mantle of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. As is less well-known, there is extensive and virtually incontrovertible evidence of horrific atrocities committed by rebel forces in the territories under their control.

Indeed, the rebels’ contempt for the traditional laws and customs of war is so flagrant that the most telling evidence consists of videos that appear to have been filmed by rebels or rebel sympathizers themselves, either as “trophies” or for purposes of intimidation. One did not need to wait for Human Rights Watch tentatively to acknowledge abuses committed by rebel forces in four western Libyan towns, as it did last week. The video evidence of rebel atrocities has been readily available for months now, almost from the very start of the rebellion. The atrocities depicted in the videos include at least two beheadings, two public hangings, one lynching, several beatings, a summary execution of a group of up to 22 captured soldiers (the so-called Al-Baida Massacre), grotesquely inhumane and demeaning treatment of prisoners, and numerous other more minor violations of humanitarian law.

This evidence has long been available, but it remains unknown to a larger public because the media, in both the United States and Europe, has as a rule simply ignored it. I linked and discussed some of the video evidence in mid-April on Pajamas Media here. At the time, other media outlets I contacted, including some new media outlets, declined to cover the videos, citing their graphic content or concerns about the sources. An intermediary who contacted a Fox News correspondent on my behalf reported back the Fox News man’s remark that the videos were “tough to deal with.”

Indeed, they are. By the very nature of the acts that they document, the videos are, of course, extremely graphic, sometimes unbearably so. But they are no more “difficult to deal with” than many other gruesome videos documenting alleged atrocities in, say, Syria or Iran that have been widely shown in both old and new media. Indeed, when the atrocities could be ascribed to Gaddafi’s forces, the media has likewise had no problem posting or broadcasting gruesome videos from Libya.

This was the case, for instance, for a macabre video broadcast by CNN on February 21 and that was alleged to show the charred remains of Libyan soldiers who had refused to open fire on protestors. The fact that the video was posted anonymously on YouTube posed no problem for CNN, no more so than the fact that the suggested interpretation of it came exclusively from, as CNN put it, “rebel sources.” As I have discussed here, there is in fact ample evidence indicating that rebel forces themselves have made a regular practice of burning the bodies of Libyan government soldiers. Indeed, there is even evidence that at the outset of the rebellion they burned some Libyan security forces alive.

Since I first wrote about the rebel atrocity videos in April, more such videos have emerged. Some of these should indeed be treated with caution. This is the case, for example, of a particularly grisly video that shows the beheading of what is alleged to be a pro-Gaddafi partisan (or, according to other accounts, a captured Libyan soldier). In the style of Al-Qaeda beheading videos, the clip is filmed as a close-up, rendering it impossible to identify location. According to the pro-Gaddafi Libyan website S.O.S. Libya, the victim is one Hamza al-Gheit Fughi. But there is no way for the moment of verifying the identity of the victim or that his murderer was in fact a member of the rebellion or any of the other circumstances of the execution.

What is so striking and significant about many of the other videos, however, is that they contain numerous details that allow place and/or context to be identified. This is the case, for instance, of an earlier video depicting the public beheading of what appears to be a suspected “mercenary.” (See clip here or here.*)

The beheading takes place in front of a burnt-out building in a public square packed with a crowd of hundreds of cheering spectators. Dozens of spectators can be seen filming the proceedings on their cell-phones. In virtually all of the towns that have fallen under rebel control, rebel forces and/or “protestors” are known to have set fire to public buildings associated with the power of the ancien régime. The Dutch public broadcaster NOS has identified the location as the main square of the rebel capital Benghazi. At one point, a member of the crowd can be heard chanting “Libya Hurra!”: “Free Libya!”, the motto of the rebellion. As a man with a long knife begins to saw at the victim’s neck, cries of “Allahu Akbar!” ring out.

Another video that has surfaced more recently contains many strikingly similar elements. There have been several reports of Libyan policemen being hanged from lampposts or bridges in the early days of the rebellion. The video in question appears to show one such episode. As in the Benghazi beheading video, a large crowd is on hand to watch the proceedings. As in the Benghazi beheading video, many members of the crowd can be seen filming the event on their cell-phones. As in the Benghazi beheading video, at the crucial moment – here, the hoisting of the body – cries of “Allahu Akbar!” ring out.

In the first twenty or so seconds of the clip, a large building with distinctive white cupolas and pointed golden arches can be seen in the background. What appears to be the same building can be seen in McClatchy and AP photos from the early days of the rebellion here and here. The location is Darnah.

Some 150 miles to the east of Benghazi, Darnah is one of the strongholds of the rebellion – and a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Captured Al-Qaeda personnel records show that Darnah sent more recruits to fight with Al-Qaeda in Iraq than any other city or town and far more in per capita terms. (See my discussion here.) Darnah is the hometown of rebel commander Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi. Al-Hasadi has admitted both to fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan and serving as a recruiter for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He told a French reporter that his goal is to “cut Gaddafi’s throat and establish an Islamic state.”

Another of the rebel atrocity videos shows various groups of men parading around the charred torso of what appears to have been a Libyan government soldier. As usual, a large crowd has gathered and members of the crowd are filming or photographing the proceedings with their cell-phones. The men exhibiting the charred remains wave the red, black and green flag of the Libyan rebellion and the flag can also be seen amidst the crowd. At one point, a man in a long black coat holds up a smaller clump of charred matter in one hand and flashes the victory sign with the other. As he does so, cries of “Allahu Akbar!” ring out. The clump of matter is said to be the dead man’s heart.

The original raw footage of the scene appears to have disappeared from YouTube. A version of it is still available here and a self-hosted version – without, however, the original sound – is available on the website S.O.S. Libya here. Different postings have identified the location as Benghazi or Misrata. But, as with the Benghazi beheading video and the Darnah public hanging video, the documented proceedings take place in a public square and distinctive architectural features are clearly visible. The definitive identification of the location should pose no problem for a Libya specialist or a motivated war crimes prosecutor.

A video clip that has emerged more recently appears to show a suspected “mercenary” being interrogated and harangued by a crowd that has gathered around him. A pistol is pressed to the man’s forehead and he is immobilized by a rope tied around his neck. A bearded man in the crowd waves a machete menacingly over his head. Although obviously of little use for the purposes of modern warfare, machetes appear frequently in the rebel atrocity videos. As in many of the earlier videos, the victim of this ill treatment is a black African. Accused en masse of serving as “mercenaries,” black Africans have been singled out for particular abuse in rebel-held territories.

The evidence provided by these and other videos makes unmistakably clear that the rebels’ conception of warfare has more in common with that of Al-Qaeda than that of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, the abuses documented in the videos could serve as textbook examples of precisely the sort of savagery that the Geneva Conventions are supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the chief prosecutor of the ICC has at his disposal equally hard evidence of war crimes committed by Libyan government forces. For the moment, it is impossible to say. According to the table of contents, Moreno-Ocampo’s application for the arrest warrants against Gaddafi and the other suspects includes a “summary of evidence” extending over an impressive 54 pages. The entirety of that evidence has, however, been “redacted.,” i.e. the corresponding section of the published application contains nothing more than the word “redacted” repeated six times.

But what Moreno-Ocampo’s handshake with Jibril already makes clear is that the ICC is not an impartial judicial authority, but rather the partisan activist court that it was always designed to be by its most influential sponsors. On the latter issue, see my 2004 analysis of the ICC statute in Policy Review here.

(*Note: Where possible, I have provided both a link to a YouTube posting of a cited video and a link to an additional posting on another platform. I do this, because YouTube has regularly removed linked video evidence of rebel atrocities or canceled the accounts of posters.)

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