Eastern Europeans on trial in Libya

Earlier this month, Libya's Supreme Military Court reviewed an appeal by 19 Ukrainians, three Belarusians, and two Russians who stand accused of aiding the regime of Muammar Qaddafi by helping his forces to maintain military equipment during the revolution. The defendants maintain that they are engineers who were working for an oil company and were not politically motivated to assist the Qaddafi regime.

The group was arrested on August 27, 2011, just after Tripoli was liberated by revolutionary militias but the circumstances that led to their arrest are not clear. In March 2012, three of the Ukrainians were cleared by the Libyan authorities and sent home due to efforts and negotiations of Ukrainian diplomats, while the rest remained in detention. In June 2012, the Tripoli Military Court sentenced the remaining Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians to ten years of imprisonment. One of the Russians was sentenced for life.

During the revolution, Qaddafi's regime was repeatedly accused of hiring foreign mercenaries, mainly from neighboring African countries, to help his troops crush the popular revolt. It produced a major backlash against foreigners in Libya immediately after the revolution and led to the arrest of thousands of suspected mercenaries.

Libya's current relationship with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is anything but friendly. Many Libyans hold the view that these countries supported Qaddafi during the revolution and that our relations with them should remain distant. Russia repeatedly criticized the international NATO-led military operation in Libya following the U.N. resolution on "targeted measures" to protect civilians. Russia then abstained during the Security Council vote and did not veto the resolution.

Indeed, Qaddafi had a good relationship with Russian and some Eastern European leaders. When Qaddafi was losing friends fast and the popular revolt against his regime gained momentum, Belarus' dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, stood by him until the end: There were even reports that his government supported Qaddafi with arms and fighting forces. Then there was the very personal connection between Qaddafi and his blonde Ukrainian nurse, who was described as one of his closest confidantes. It's said that Qaddafi never travelled anywhere without her by his side.

Despite Libyan popular opinion, the government has made it clear that it will work to normalize relations with all nations regardless of their position during the revolution (and especially concerning Russia). During a press conference, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan emphasized the historical and strategic reasons for his government to have a good working relationship with Moscow. Russia was Libya's main weapons supplier before the revolution, and the new authorities are currently using many of the same weapons to equip security units. In addition, Libya cannot afford to be enemies with a powerful state, especially when it is seeking to lift the arms embargo imposed on the country by the U.N. Security Council.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has been assisting the detained Ukrainians throughout the trial, and continues to maintain their innocence. If the convictions against them are upheld, Ukraine will seek to have them repatriated to serve out their sentences. The Russian Foreign Ministry has called the sentences "unfair and unjustifiably harsh," and is urging the Libyan authorities to release its citizens and allow their return home. However, both countries expressed respect for Libya's sovereignty and its judicial procedures.

Earlier this week, Libya's General National Congress (the country's interim legislature) made an amendment to the Military Penal Code, banning military courts from trying civilians and ordering that all ongoing military trials involving civilians be halted. The amendment also emphasized that cases involving both civilians and military personnel would fall under the jurisdiction of the public prosecutor, not the military. (In this case the public prosecutor has preference over the military prosecutor.) This amendment could halt the appeal process for the defendants, and instead they may face a new trial in a civilian court.

This trial is only one episode of the many challenges that post-Qaddafi Libya will face with the once-friendly regimes in Eastern Europe, especially since Russia and Ukraine are trying to safeguard business deals that were signed with the Qaddafi's regime. (These include long-term arms deals as well as agreements with Russian oil and construction companies.) Libya is currently reviewing all of the former regime's major contracts. If it turns out that the contracts signed with the Russian and Eastern European companies were based more on political grounds than on solid economic judgment, the contracts could be cancelled, complicating Libya's future relations with the countries concerned.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  



Farewell Ms. Weinstein

"You must be Esti's grandson," said one lady as she pinched my cheek. "Leave him be. He's a guest," responded Carmen Weinstein as she moved a tray of sandwiches under the sukkah.

The first time I spoke to Weinstein, who presided over the Jewish Community Council of Cairo until her passing last week, was when I called her out of the blue to ask if I could attend the celebration of Sukkot in Cairo. I had read about the week long holiday (and watched iconic film Ushpizin), so I thought I'd give it a try. After all, one of the main traditions is to give shelter to a visitor. "I am Muslim, I must point out." But her only question was, "are you a journalist?" At the time, in 2008, I had never written for the press, and so she replied "you're very welcome." It was amusing to see that the only ones who objected to my attendance were the police guards posted by the entrance of the synagogue.

In the synagogue's yard however, it was a much more relaxed ambience. There were mostly elderly ladies, some people with their children, and a few expatriates in need of a sukkah for the holidays. And yes, the cheek-pinching (is it a Jewish grandma quintessential thing to do?) did occur. There's a reason for this -- only a few dozen remain in the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered 80,000, and many of those are married to Muslims or Christians. So this Mohamed could very well have been Esti's grandson.

When I interviewed Ms. Weinstein much later, she called to thank me, because I "had written what she had said, no more and no less." Her experience with the media hadn't always been positive -- journalists almost regularly mangled her quotes, and at times completely made up stories. As such, she was reasonably wary of the press and maintained a low profile.

As the president of the Cairo Jewish Community Council (JCC), Carmen fought for the recognition of the Egyptian Jewish community. Tasked with ensuring the continued existence of Judaism's past, present, and future in the land of Moses, she had the incredibly difficult task of representing (primarily vis-à-vis her co-citizens and government) Egyptian citizens regularly accused of foreign agency without falling in the trap of engaging her detractors and accusers. She knew well enough that the only way to win this game was not to play it; thereby shielding her community from local and external attacks.

As such, beside caring for her community and guests, she regularly had to juggle the omnipresent Egyptian State Security concerns, overzealous foreign guests bent on showing support when she didn't need it, the fanfare of U.S. ambassadors who regularly attended the religious celebrations, Israeli embassy staff (who even when they are there on a personal capacity are still a potential source of public tension), foreign organizations keen on robbing away what's left of the Egyptian Jewish heritage for "safekeeping" in Brooklyn or elsewhere, and various unscrupulous lawyers attempting to put their hands on buildings and temples belonging to the JCC. She did it all with an unflinching grace that would come to be her trademark. 

Weinstein's lobbying allowed for the registration of several Jewish temples as national antiquities, thereby preventing their sale, but also getting the Ministry of State for Antiquities to include them in its plan for the restoration of national monuments. One of her key accomplishments was overseeing the restoration of the Mosheh Ben Maimon (Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo, which ended in 2010. On that occasion, Ms. Weinstein and the Jewish Community Council put together an opportunity for Egyptian Jews who had left the country over the previous decades to visit the Maimonides synagogue as well as many other temples normally sealed to the public. She saved me an invitation, again in personal capacity. As I toured the Bassatine cemetery -- the second oldest Jewish cemetery still in use worldwide -- alongside people visiting their parents' and grandparents' tombstones for the first time in half a century, I listened to stories of their childhood best friends in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. I was privileged to gain a glimpse into the lives of a nearly-invisible Egyptian community, which whether at home or abroad, still exists. Apart from the romanticism of a "happy together" past, it was and remains an important part of our history.

I've read many obituaries over the past few days which described Carmen as the Iron Lady. Perhaps she was in many respects; I always saw this as a necessary trait for her duties. Her trust was not easily earned, but she was always honest and open, very friendly when at ease, and always willing to share a laugh.

So what next for the Cairene Jewish community? As I attended Carmen's funeral this week in Cairo, I saw the cemetery in worse shape than I had last in 2010. Sewage had crawled over a larger section of the cemetery -- so much that Weinstein's family section was inaccessible, and she had to be buried on the other side of the cemetery. Brick buildings were encroaching on the tombs, and stray dogs roamed unimpeded.

New leadership for the Jewish Community Council has been elected, in the face of Magda S. Haroun, who will be shouldered by her sister Nadia -- both daughters of iconic Egyptian socialist and humanist figure Shehata Haroun. Two decades younger than her predecessor, Magda gave a speech at Ms. Weinstein's funeral that seemed to set the path for more openness with the rest of the Egyptian society, while maintaining the necessary emphasis on safeguarding Egyptian Jewish history.

There is some renewed interest in the history of Egyptian Jews, as signified by the popular interest in a documentary currently playing in Egyptian cinemas (in my book it gets an A for effort and a D for research and cinematography, but might be worth watching anyway).

In the midst of the political mess Egypt is going through, this is one transition I am actually looking forward to observing.

Goodbye, Carmen Weinstein. You will be greatly missed.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.