Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, a former minister of justice, was one of the first senior officials to resign from the regime when the uprising erupted, and emerged as a leading figure in the local committees that sought to wrest control of their communities from Gaddafi’s government. He would subsequently rise to become the chairman of Libya’s first post-Gaddafi government, the National Transitional Council.
In this first installment of an extensive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat‘s Editor-in-Chief on the second anniversary of Gaddafi’s downfall, he discusses his disagreements with Libya’s dictator during his time in office, and his experiences during the uprising.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: When did you personally decide that it was important to support the Libyan revolution?
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil: Since I was young, my family were appalled and resentful towards the coup of 1969. People in eastern Libya were closely linked with King Idris and the monarchy. Consequently the coup was not a happy occasion from our perspective, it was more like a nightmare. We were convinced from the beginning that the regime would not act in the interest of Libyans, and this is the environment I grew up in.
When I entered the legal profession in 1975, the judiciary faced some serious problems caused by implementing laws which were enacted in the Muammar Gaddafi era. As judges in Libya in general, and judges in the region of Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar specifically, we set many judicial precedents in standing against many of the laws enacted by Gaddafi.
From 1979, resistance to the regime began to emerge clearly through some judgments, but we were not subjected to any harm or injury, whether personal or professional, as a result of our work.
In 2007, I was appointed as chairman of the Court of First Instance in eastern Libya, in Bayda. I formerly worked in Benghazi, Derna and Bayda, during the time when a reform program was initiated. However, Libyans soon gave up hope of ousting Muammar. I would like to point out here that he [Muammar Gaddafi] was subjected, from the first year of his rule, to many plots [to overthrow him]. The first of those attempts were initiated by the then Interior Minister and Defense Minister, both of whom hailed from the eastern region. Nevertheless, the attempts did not succeed. It is said that there were over 50 plots against Gaddafi, including coup and assassination attempts.
So, when Libyans lost hope of the possibility of overthrowing the Gaddafi regime—especially after he improved his international status by settling the Lockerbie case and closing his nuclear program, with which he intended to disrupt the world—they turned to reform. The calls for reform grew louder through Gaddafi’s son, Saif, who established two politically independent newspapers, one in Benghazi and the other in Tripoli, which criticized the situation in the country openly.
A number of writers were allowed to work in the papers, which was something of a novelty. There was also the reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and many were released from prison. Other prisoners who pledged to not return to the activities which brought them to prison were also released, although many of them did not actually sign such a pledge and remained in prison.
I was then offered the role of the Minister of Justice and I received around five files, most of them regarding [financial compensation]. The first of which was to compensate those affected by a law passed in 1978 which limited property ownership. The second was to compensate for the eradication of the free economy in 1979 and the abolition of all private companies.
The third file was linked to the compensation of prisoners who were imprisoned for lengthy periods without being convicted by a court of law. Each prisoner was allocated a monthly salary and some prisoners were released and returned to employment. Some prisoners were compensated for the period they spent in prison.
The fourth file was related to the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre in which 1,269 young men were killed following a rebellion by some young prisoners against their treatment in prison, which resulted in the murder of some guards. Gaddafi decided to kill all the prisoners and this took place in the span of three hours. Their families were officially informed of their murder and we offered compensation of LYD 200,000, approximately USD 160,000, for every prisoner.
Finally, there was also the case of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor, who injected children from the eastern region with the AIDS virus.
Q: Was this final case a real case or one orchestrated by the Gaddafi regime?
It was a real case and was not orchestrated by the regime. The Supreme Court convicted the nurses and the doctor and sentenced them to death on two occasions.
Q: Was the infection accidental?
According to the confessions given by the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor, their actions were intentional.
Q: What was the total cost of all five files?
We spent in the region of LYD 2.7 billion.
Q: Is this how you became part of the Gaddafi regime structure?
I have never been part of the regime. In fact, the reverse is true. I remember when I looked at the investigative files and among the tasks was to inform the families of those who were killed in the Abu Salim massacre. There was a family from Misrata who had four brothers killed in the massacre and, in my capacity as the Minister of Justice, I sent them a letter of condolences. In the letter, I told them that their sons would be witnesses against those who oppressed them. No, I could not be part of this regime. In addition to this, we enforced our judgments. If any court judgment required financial compensation, it was paid in a timely manner. For example, we used to immediately implement any judgment to release prisoners, meaning we could go in a certain direction, despite facing some difficulties.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
There are defendants in a case called the “the Islamic Fighting Group case.” The Criminal Court and the Higher Court acquitted around 300 prisoners, although they were yet to be released. I therefore sent a number of messages to the General People’s Congress [parliament] and the General People’s Committee [Prime Minister’s office] but nobody responded to the judicial decision. Gaddafi later signed the order to release them at a time when he used to say he was not the head of the state.
I took an opportunity at the General People’s Congress in February 2010 and I said that there was an article on the agenda which was called the “accountability article” but there was no accountability at the Ministry of Justice. I asked to make a speech and I expressed my surprise at the fact that the Ministry of Justice was not held accountable, especially as we had failed on a number of issues. The first issue was that we had not held a meeting in two years, which is a violation of the people’s authority.
I also said that there were more than 300 prisoners who were acquitted by the High Court who had not been released. There were also some sentenced to death after being convicted of deliberate murder but had been released without the complaint being dropped by the victims’ families. I therefore resigned because I was unable to achieve justice in Libya.
Half an hour later, Gaddafi came to the General People’s Congress, confronted me in the hall and said the Minister of Justice did not choose a suitable place to say this, and that I had not chosen the right time. He added that “those accused belonged to Al-Qaeda and had we released them, explosions would have taken place in Libya.” Gaddafi said the ones he released killed in defense of their honor and property, and so, how can the judiciary sentence someone who defended their honor and property to death?
I then argued with him in a precedent which became known to Libyans and which probably raised my profile when the Libyans chose me to head the Transitional National Council (TNC). In addition to all of the above, my city Bayda, gave the first two martyrs in the revolution on February 16. All prisoners were released and courts were burned, and therefore, I had no option but to join the revolution at an early stage. This background has made me take a prominent position in the revolution compared to other Libyan officials.
Q: How were you chosen to represent the revolution? Did you have any communication with revolutionary activists?
Bayda was the first to revolt and the revolutionaries formed a local committee, which I chaired. They then elected a crisis cell management committee, which was run by university lecturers and technocrats. After that the eastern areas began to revolt and form local committees, which included a number of politicians with vision—including Mahmoud Jibril and Abdel Rahman Shalgham—who insisted on the importance of forming a political structure which deals with the outside world. The personalities which formed this structure met in Benghazi on February 26, nine days after the start of the revolution, and elected me chairman of the council.
Q: What were the first decisions you made when you assumed this responsibility? What did you see as the most necessary thing to do at the time?
Things were very difficult. First, we ordered local committees in Tubruq, Derna, Marj and Benghazi to elect their representatives and set March 5 as a date to meet in Benghazi. The representatives of these local committees arrived and the TNC was formed of 11 people representing the local committees, youth, women and political and military prisoners.
Priorities were as follows: First, dealing with the outside world and communicating with it to bring support for the TNC as a negotiator and sole and legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Next was the economic situation, because we were totally isolated from the western area where the government was, we had to guarantee the supplies of electricity, fuel, and basic food sources. The third priority was the military. Of course we faced Gaddafi’s forces, which were fierce, while revolutionaries did not have enough weapons. Despite that, they made advances and were joined by army commanders and officers, as well as Bedouins.
Q: How confident were you at that time that the revolution would be a success?
I had no doubt at all. I had a premonition that the revolution would succeed and that Gaddafi was facing his worst days. I had no doubt that I would not be subjected to any harm at any time, even after the death of Gaddafi.
Q: When you started to work with the uprising, did the regime at any time try to communicate with you to persuade you to abandon the revolution?
On February 17, the [Prime Minister] called me, and I was in the eastern area at the time, and he asked me about what had happened there. On that day, 15 martyrs fell in Bayda, and two days before, two martyrs fell in the city, so I gave him an idea of the situation. He asked me about the demands of the revolutionaries and I said a ceasefire, removal of the mercenaries, and a space to express their aspirations.
Q: You were acquainted with Saif Al-Islam. Did he attempt to contact you?
He tried to contact me, but we did not communicate. My office manager told me Saif wanted to speak to me but my response was to make him the one who had to call. Saif Al-Islam, however, did not try to call me again. In fact, neither Gaddafi nor his sons knew my situation. The only one who called me was the Prime Minister (Baghdadi Mahmoudi).
Q: Were you surprised by the positions adopted by Saif Al-Islam and his siblings?
I was counting on Saif Al-Islam’s speech to be balanced. It was a speech prepared for him by a man called Mohamed Abdel-Muttalib Al-Houni. If he had made this speech to the people, he would have been able to replace his father and things could have been resolved amicably and a constitution could have been drafted according to the people’s needs. This is because people had grown tired of Gaddafi and wanted a constitution and development, and these issues were at the time closer to reality than anything else. But Saif Al-Islam came out with threats and said the country would be divided. It was a speech that was not expected.
Q: It was a disappointment then?
Q: When did you feel that it was possible to actually remove Gaddafi? And were there moments of doubt?
As I mentioned earlier, I personally did not have any doubts in spite of the difficulties and obstacles.
Q: You went through times when your forces retreated, how did you feel at the time? Was there anyone calling for dialogue with the regime to stop the fighting, or were you convinced that there could be no negotiations with the regime?
To be frank we relied on some respectable Libyan figures, if they had come and taken responsibility at the time, they would have been accepted by the eastern province and conciliation would have been achieved. For example, Jadallah Azzouz Al-Talhi, who was prime minister and Libyan envoy to the UN, as well as minister of industry. He was a person who Libyans respected. There was also another man called Abu Zaid Dawradah, who was also a prime minister, as well as a minister of agriculture and a UN envoy.
In the meantime, the African Union envoy came and offered reconciliation, but not through these people, but by forming a government involving figures chosen by the regime and the revolutionaries, but we rejected that idea.
We were also visited by the UN chief’s envoy Abel-Ilah Al-Khatib [former Jordanian foreign minister] on three occasions, offering reconciliation. Our main demand with regards to reconciliation was one which Gaddafi could not accept, which was a ceasefire, and withdrawing his forces from Tripoli to give Libyans in the capital the chance to express their aspirations. We also said let the people of Tripoli speak, and if they said they were with the revolution so be it, and if they said they were with Gaddafi so be it. We, in that case, could not be separated from the western area. Of course they offered us the chance to separate ourselves beginning at a distance of 40km from Ajdabiya, but we said that was not possible, except if people in Tripoli came out in support of Gaddafi, in which case we would not have objected.
Q: When you decided to reach out to the international community, what did you expect would happen? And what were your views with what happened afterwards, with respect to the positions adopted by different countries?
We did not expect Gaddafi to face us with such force, and if the international community had not stood by us, we would not have been able to achieve what Libyans aspired for at the time. The first call I made was to a person called Khalid in the office of the Emir of Qatar, and I am certain and am well aware of the extent of the relationship between the Qatari government and Gaddafi, especially the prime minister who was very close to him.
In this context, I know very well that when the regime decided to compensate the families of the children who were infected with AIDS, the compensation figure was very high, and each child received close to one million dollars, which is a huge amount in Libya, even USD 100,000 is a huge amount in Libya. The person who brought these compensation amounts to Libya was the Qatari ambassador in Paris. As I was a Minister of Justice, I had a copy of the communication regarding the issue, but unfortunately it was burned following a fire in my office in Tripoli.
I was certain that the French government was very close to Gaddafi, because president [Sarkozy’s] wife came to Tripoli to receive the nurses once the families of the children dropped their complaints. According to the law, when the family drop their complaint, the death sentence is commuted to life in prison, which is what we did as the relevant judicial council. According to a previous agreement between Libya and Bulgaria, the nurses were transferred to complete their sentence in Bulgaria. We did not expect this advanced role in helping the revolution from the Qatari government or the French government, who were both at the forefront of our supporters.
We also note the support of the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council as a leading organization, which announced its support for the Libyan revolution, and followed by the Arab League and so on.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic. It can be read here.