A Libyan military court ruled Wednesday that 50 people accused of fighting for Muammar Gaddafi and helping a mass jail break by alleged supporters of the deposed leader should be freed and tried instead in a civilian court.
Defence lawyers welcomed the ruling, saying most of the accused were civilians and that the military court on a base in the eastern city of Benghazi was struggling to try the case.
We feel this court is under pressure and... does not have the necessary judicial independence, said Saleh Omran, who represents 17 of the accused, denying that his clients were Gaddafi supporters.
They helped the prisoners escape from jail because some of those held were their relatives and they were protecting them. It has nothing to do with Gaddafi's men, he said.
A transitional government was appointed in November to lead Libya to elections but it is struggling to impose order on myriad armed groups that toppled Gaddafi last year after 42 years in power.
It has been keen to try Gaddafi's family members and loyalists at home, but human rights activists worry that a weak central government and a lack of rule of law could rob them of the right to a fair trial.
The defendants are facing charges of using force against the revolutionary forces, terrorising civilians and helping prisoners escape, as well as inciting people to commit crimes. Omran said some of those charges carry the death penalty.
The defendants are part of a militia that helped what officials from the transitional council said at the time were about 300 Gaddafi loyalists escape from custody in July.
Fifteen witnesses called to give evidence Wednesday did not show up and hearings have been postponed twice since the trial began on February 5, for security reasons and pending a request by some of the lawyers to review the evidence.
(Reporting by Mohamed al-Tommy; Writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by David Stamp)