US court finds Libya's Khalifa Haftar liable for war crimes

By Umar A Farooq

Federal judge issues default judgement against Libyan commander and paves the way for plaintiffs to seek monetary compensation

Multiple Libyan families filed lawsuits against Haftar in US courts, accusing him of torturing and killing their relatives (AFP/File photo)

A federal US judge on Friday issued a default judgement against Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, finding him liable for war crimes against several Libyan families who have accused him of extrajudicial killings and torture.

Judge Leonie Brinkema's judgement, which follows a previous recommendation from a magistrate judge last month, paves the way for the families in three separate civil suits to seek monetary compensation.

Following Brinkema's decision, lawyers for Haftar confirmed that they would be withdrawing as the Libyan commander's counsel, leaving him without a lawyer going forward.

Sitting anxiously in the courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, the Libyan family members and advocates working on the case quietly burst into joy as soon as they heard Brinkema's decision. For them, this was a major victory following three years of civil litigation to hold Haftar accountable for the torture and deaths of their loved ones.

"This is the culmination of years of work with Libyan victims against what the war criminal Haftar has done for so many years in Libya," Esam Omeish, president of the Libyan American Alliance, an advocacy group that serves as a lead consultant in one of the three lawsuits, told Middle East Eye.

"These people had the brave sense of fighting in a court of law, and they wanted to have their day in court," he said.

"After three years of going back and forth of, dealing with lawyers and judges and many hearings, today, we reached a conclusion of that judgment, saying that Khalifa Haftar indeed is liable for committing these crimes against the torture victims."

Multiple Libyan families had filed lawsuits against Haftar in US courts in 2019 and 2020, in which the Libyan commander was accused of torturing and killing their relatives.

The families filed their lawsuits under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, a law that allows non-US citizens to seek compensation from individuals who, acting in an official capacity for any foreign nation, allegedly committed torture or extrajudicial killing.

Haftar, a US citizen who had been a Virginia resident for decades, unsuccessfully tried to have the civil lawsuits tossed out under the claim of immunity as head of state.

Earlier this year, Haftar was a no-show at a long-sought video deposition where he was going to be asked about his alleged role in the extrajudicial killings and torture of Libyan civilians in the country's decade-long civil war.

The next step in the legal case is a hearing where the judge will evaluate what kind of compensation package the families should receive.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Haftar has owned various property holdings in Virginia worth millions of dollars.

"We will now be moving towards the damage phase," Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing one group of the plaintiffs, said during a press conference shortly after Friday's hearing. "And we'll execute upon properties wherever we can find them anywhere in the world."

"It's rumoured he has hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more around the world."

Global ramifications for Haftar

The judgement has serious potential ramifications both inside Libya and around the world for Haftar, who has for years been vying to become the leader of the North African country.