The paperwork of a man at war

By Chris Stephen

Muammar Gaddafi. Photo / AP
Muammar Gaddafi. Photo / AP

The dark green box files are packed in rows that stretch up to the ceiling - as dull as dull could be. But the papers hidden inside them will sink Muammar Gaddafi.

In these boxes, hidden at a secure location in the besieged rebel city of Misrata, lie thousands of documents containing the orders given by the Libyan leader and transmitted by his generals to unleash the torture, arrest and bombardment that have torn the country apart. For war crimes prosecutors, they are pure gold.

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has already filed indictments against Gaddafi, his son, Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Observer was granted exclusive access to view some of the files and found the paperwork astonishing. On the top of one file is a letter from March 4, two weeks after Misrata rose up, signed by the general in charge of quelling the protest: Youssef Ahmed Basheer Abu Hajar. It tells its "fighting formations": "It is absolutely forbidden for supply cars, fuel and other services to enter the city of Misrata from all gates and checkpoints."

Or, to put it more bluntly, Gaddafi ordered his army to inflict starvation on the citizens of Misrata.

Another document, bearing the stamp of Gaddafi's Anti-Terrorism Committee instructs forces to hunt down two wounded rebels, a clear violation of the Geneva conventions that demand protection for the wounded.

Other documents show Gaddafi's generals giving orders to smash rebel centres, regardless of civilian casualties.

"We have lots of evidence that Gaddafi wanted all of Misrata gone," said war crimes investigator Khalid Alwab, 35. "We have him [Gaddafi] saying he wanted the people of Taruga [the town to the west] and Zlitan [the town to the east] to each take half. He wanted to turn the blue sea red."

No other major international war crimes trial has ever found written instructions proving that atrocities were actually ordered. One reason the trial of the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, took so long was the failure to find any documentation to back the charges he masterminded nearly a decade of carnage, torture and ethnic cleansing.

The same problem bedevils the prosecution of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor. There is no shortage of evidence of rape, murder, mutilation and enslavement in the plundering of diamonds from Sierra Leone, but again no documents that tie Taylor to the crimes.

Thanks to Alwab and his colleagues, that is not a problem Ocampo is likely to face.

"Legally this is easy," he says, gesturing to the signed, stamped orders. "It's an easy case. They are going to win it for sure. In Gaddafi's world, you can't do anything without the authorisation. Everything has to come from Gaddafi."

The lawyers insist they will provide everything the ICC needs, when its prosecutors decide the city is safe enough to visit. "Of course, if Ocampo wants some information we can give it to him," says Alwab. "We know that he needs to do his own investigation, but we are ready to help when everything settles down."

The documents continue to come in as rockets hit the city, a timely reminder that this is a war crimes investigation happening while those crimes continue to take place.

At the next desk to Alwab is fellow investigator Wisam Suliman Alsaghayer, 26, who is poring over a report on the shelling of a Coptic church in the shattered village of Dafniya, 32km to the west.

The missile that hit the church came through the roof and landed in the nave. For Alsaghayer, this detail will enable him to calculate the trajectory of the missile and where it was fired from.

To the layman, that may seem a minor matter, but not to a Hague judge: to convict Gaddafi and his henchmen, the judges will need to be convinced that each specific incident can be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Dafniya remains under fire, but once engineers have determined the building will not collapse around him Alsaghayer will make the journey to the front to carry out his inspection; his fear is that more rockets will destroy the building, rendering it, from an evidence point of view, as useless as a pile of rubble.

The two men are part of Team A, one of two teams of investigators which assembled without being asked in order to gather the evidence. The strain of confronting so much misery, day after day, is apparent in their hollow eyes.

One of the hardest jobs is persuading the citizens of Misrata, who concentrate on simply staying alive, to pay attention to finding documentation and providing witness statements. "It is really hard," Alwab says. "But if you go to them and explain things to them, they will understand."

While Gaddafi and his top henchmen, including four of his sons, are destined for The Hague, thousands of lesser figures will be prosecuted by Libya's own courts, assuming the rebels win the war. More surprising is Alwab's desire that Gaddafi and his generals get a fair trial; the lawyers want to ensure that all defendants have good defence lawyers and hope foreigners will remove even the hint of bias at the ICC.

However, the International Criminal Court, which opened its doors in July 2002 and, despite a budget of $135 million and a staff of 560, is approaching its ninth anniversary having failed to win a single conviction.

But the Libyan case could change that. No sooner had Ocampo won the mandate from the UN security council in February to open an investigation, he rushed a team of investigators to the region. The resulting indictment, one of the fastest ever produced by an international court, landed on the judges' desks last month. A second Gaddafi indictment, is expected in October.

As for Alwab, once this is all over, he wants a career change to commercial law, saying: " Hopefully, Libya will have no more need for expertise in war crimes law."

Collecting evidence

Quick thinking young lawyers from Misrata helped gather the evidence which threatens to put the Libyan leadership on trial.

When rebellion broke out on February 17 they had the foresight to rush around the city, urging the protesters who broke into army bases and police stations not to set the buildings ablaze.

And when rebel forces, aided by powerful Nato air strikes, finally pushed Gaddafi's forces from the city, these lawyers were there again - they were persuading commanders not to destroy bases and depots that were overrun.

Contrast this to the situation in the rebel capital, Benghazi, where protesters simply torched every official building they could find.

This means they destroyed with them every scrap of evidence.

Meanwhile, in Misrata the search continues: appeals go out at regular intervals for rebels who capture prisoners to go through their pockets and search their vehicles, handing in any paperwork, however innocuous it may seem.

The paperwork, war crimes investigator Khalid Alwab believes, will provide the prosecutorial mosaic that will secure convictions.


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