For a long time, Libyans have fantasized about what they would do if they could get their hands on Col. Moammar Kadafi. The idea I heard most often when I was growing up had him placed in a cage in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, which served as the theater of executions for several Libyans who had disagreed with the dictatorship. This way, the fantasy went, every passerby would be able to spit at “the Leader.” Then, when they tired of spitting, they would hang him by the neck — as he had done to university students who failed to express the appropriate enthusiasm for his rule — and leave his corpse there until it rotted, exactly as he had done to those students.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor’s announcement that he would be seeking arrest warrants for three members of the Libyan dictatorship, including Kadafi, not only adds wind to the sails of the Libyan uprising but offers the people of this young country a unique opportunity to see justice done. One of the sinister ways in which a long-standing oppressive dictator can affect his people is to corrode their commitment to the law, leading them to confuse revenge for justice.
For the last four decades, life has taught Libyans that crimes are rewarded, that violence and lies pay. This has inspired overwhelming feelings of apathy and cynicism, particularly with regard to accountability. For Libyans, David wins only in books; in real life, Goliath comes out on top every time.
Libya declared its independence on Christmas Eve 1951. Over the country’s relatively short history, accountability has been as elusive as a half-recalled dream. After World War II, when the victorious were keen to hold the defeated to account, Mussolini’s generals did not stand trial for their colonial campaign that caused the death of nearly half the Libyan population. And in the long years of oppression by Kadafi, an atmosphere of lawlessness emerged in which the Libyan elite could do anything they wanted: beating a servant to death, stealing someone’s factory or home. Libyans had to endure this reality while at the same time watching several respectable countries offer their chief tormentor respect.
In 2004 when then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair landed in Tripoli, he did not find the Leader waiting for him on the runway. Kadafi meant this as a snub to the British. The image of Blair rushing to the mouth of the tent, where the colonel waited, seemed disgraceful.
Immediately after the news was broadcast, my brother called.
“Today,” he said, “we lost everything.”
Blair and the international community’s actions helped create a darker reality for the country. International legitimacy emboldened the Libyan dictatorship to oppress its critics even more, under the claim that they were terrorists, and his new “respectability” arguably extended Kadafi’s political life. It was demoralizing for the Libyan people to witness the extent to which Kadafi’s threats and bribes had managed to manipulate international opinion. They watched as every so often the United States offered up a Libyan or two to be “interrogated” by Kadafi’s men. Suddenly, the idea of political change seemed even more farfetched than before.
For Libyans, living in a state in which the elite bear no responsibility for their actions, in which the leadership lies without shame and gets away with it, in which people steal and live happily ever after, is isolating and depressing. It is one of the main reasons, I would argue, why — until February 2011 — an overwhelming majority of Libyans, particularly young men, used to sleep well past noon and seemed to be exceptionally dispirited and negative about the future. In the end, it was that generation that rose to take back the country. One of the nicknames of the revolution is “the Falling Jeans Revolution,” referring to the fashion trend of its chief protagonists.
It is against this reality that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a lawyer who played a crucial role in bringing the Argentine military junta to account, stood in front of the world on May 16 and announced that he is seeking arrest warrants for men who have up to now existed beyond the law. In addition to Kadafi, the court wants to arrest Seif Islam Kadafi, the dictator’s son and, until recently, the darling of the West, and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Sanoussi, the dictator’s brother in law, a man described by Moreno-Ocampo as “the executioner.”
This is very far from the despair my brother articulated in the wake of Tony Blair’s 2004 grovelling visit. No, this to many Libyans, feels like a return to sanity.
In the past desperate few weeks, discussions have often focused on two equally bad options: the first, to kill Kadafi; the second, to negotiate with him. The ICC’s announcement represents a third and better way forward, one that would allow Libyans a meaningful chance at justice and steer them away from fantasies of revenge. Revenge builds nothing; justice is educative, teaching a society the values of accountability, the meaning of causality and responsibility. Libya deserves to see its criminals tried fairly and robustly.
By Hisham Matar, the author of In the Country of Men and the forthcoming novel Anatomy of a Disappearance.