BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A Libyan military court said on Wednesday it would no longer handle the case investigating the killing of a top rebel field commander in last year’s war, after the questioning of the country’s former insurgent leader sparked protests.
Military prosecutors last week told wartime rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil not to leave the country after questioning him over the killing of Abdel Fattah Younes.
That spurred widespread criticism as well as protests in support of Jalil in Tripoli that continued on Wednesday, with roads in several areas of the capital closed off.
Younes was Gaddafi’s interior minister before he defected and joined the rebellion. Gunmen killed him in July 2011.
The head of the Benghazi military court told reporters the file would now be handed to the head of the General Authority for Military Justice “for it to be considered by another body”.
“The Military Court in Benghazi has decided to step down from ...the case relating to the killing of Abdel Fattah Younes,” Judge Abdullah al-Saidi said.
“The military court was surprised by the ... attack that was launched against it even though the court was doing its duty.”
Eleven men have been charged in connection with Younes’ murder, including a former deputy premier of the NTC, but only one has been arrested. A February 20 trial date had been set and it was not immediately clear what the next steps would be.
Military prosecutors accused Jalil, ex-chairman of the now dissolved National Transitional Council (NTC), of abuse of power and undermining national unity. He later publicly said he had cooperated in the questioning but queried the accusations.
There was no immediate comment from him on Wednesday.
In Tripoli, Justice Minister Salah al-Magharni said a law would be changed so that no civilians would now be to taken for trial in military courts. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan praised Jalil as someone who “helped the revolution succeed”.
“This whole matter is being looked at. Once a decision is made, we will announce it,” he told reporters.
Saidi said he had come under criticism after he made a victory sign when celebrations broke out at a November hearing in which Jalil was ordered to be questioned.
“It was not a celebration but something spontaneous - the head of the court expressing the victory of the revolution where everybody is equal and no one is above the law,” he said.
Younes, one of the group involved in the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power, was slain in mysterious fashion after NTC leaders summoned him back to Benghazi, their political base in eastern Libya, to discuss “mistakes at the front line”.
His death betrayed ideological splits in the rebel movement and was seen as the work of a faction that mistrusted any ex-Gaddafi loyalist holding a commanding position in the rebellion.
Jalil was a judge and justice minister during the Gaddafi era. He resigned in February 2011 at the start of the uprising.
In November 2011, the NTC’s chief military prosecutor named its former deputy prime minister Ali el-Essawi as the main suspect in the killing of Younes.
A year later, Essawi was charged with abuse of his authority and, along with nine other men, assisting in the abduction of Younes before his death. Another man, Salem al-Mansouri, was charged with the actual killing. Only Mansouri is in custody.
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Rosalind Russell