LONDON – Amal Alamuddin’s photo was splashed across the world last month after the announcement of her engagement to George Clooney.
Soon, she could return to the front pages in a more controversial role — when she stands up in court to represent former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s notorious spy chief in a case that could scupper the reputation of the International Criminal Court.
Abdullah al-Senussi is no one’s idea of a poster boy for justice. As Gadhafi’s intelligence chief and right-hand man for four decades, the 64-year-old supervised torture, assassinations and town-square hangings.
Many Libyans blame him for the massacre of 1,200 inmates at Tripoli’s Abu Salem Prison. A Paris court has convicted him in absentia for the bombing of a French airliner in 1989, and Scottish police are to interview him over allegations of masterminding the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
He fled Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution but was caught in Mauritania and returned to Libya. And that is where the trouble began.
Al-Senussi was charged — along with Gadhafi’s playboy son, Seif al-Islam — with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC. Under the rules of the United Nations, which ordered the case, the Hague court was to hold the trial unless Libya could prove itself capable of doing the job itself.
In October, Libya was given that approval, despite allegations that al-Senussi had been mistreated, and Libya’s refusal to let Alamuddin or any of his ICC-appointed defense team visit him, which she says should have been a red flag to The Hague.
“A scary precedent has been set,” she said. “The ICC made its decision despite the fact that Libya did not allow us a single visit to al-Senussi.”
A high-flier in the world of international lawyers, Alamuddin was hired for the case by Ben Emmerson QC, with whom she had already worked defending WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange.
Born in Beirut to a journalist mother and travel-agent father, the 36-year-old barrister had already gained a high profile as an adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and was picked by U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague for a panel investigating rape as a war crime.
Her decision to work as legal adviser to Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who has been blamed by rights groups for systematic torture and repression, raised eyebrows, but sources at her chambers in London’s Doughty Street say she is a tough, combative lawyer with experience gained as a prosecutor on the U.N.’s Lebanon war crimes tribunal.
When she failed to get a visa for Libya, or even permission to speak to her client by telephone, she sought out al-Senussi’s daughter, Anoud, who was kidnapped and jailed in Tripoli after visiting her father in prison, and later fled to London.
The al-Senussi appeal hearing against The Hague’s decision to back Libya cuts to the very heart of what the ICC is supposed to be.
Conceived as a “world court,” its mission is to set a benchmark for global justice. In backing Libya, that reputation stands to be badly tarnished.
Libya began the trial of al-Senussi and Seif al-Islam last month amid chaotic conditions. Al-Senussi, haggard and emaciated and wearing blue prison garb, appeared with other defendants in a steel cage and complained that Libya had broken a promise to The Hague to find him a lawyer.
Prosecutors refused to let him see the evidence against him, though he could face the death penalty.
The militia of Zintan refused to hand over Seif al-Islam, and the militia of Misrata refused to hand over another eight defendants, while six more were simply missing.
Militiamen guarding the Al- Hadba Prison, where the trial is being held, refused to give human rights officials access. Emmerson condemned it as “a show trial without a trace of due process guarantees.”
Amaluddin has waited six months for ICC judges to give a date for the appeal.
When they do, the issue of defense lawyers will be central.
“The Hague court penalizes us for not being in a position to give details of all the violations against our client, but there are details we cannot provide because we can’t get to see him,” she said.
After 12 years in existence and costing $1 billion, the ICC has, because of bureaucracy and delays, secured just a single conviction, that of Congolese warlord Germain Katanga.
The al-Senussi appeal hearing promised to be a landmark day, with the Libya process condemned by Amnesty International, the U.N.’s panel on torture and the African Union’s court.
“The whole point of the ICC is to be there when national systems can’t do the job, said Alamuddin. “Instead, it is giving a flawed, dangerous process the stamp of approval.” With the al-Senussi case active, Alamuddin will not say why she is defending a man many think deserves all he gets.
One clue comes from fellow Doughty Street lawyer John Jones QC, who is defending Seif al-Islam. “Justice needs defense lawyers. The system only works if there’s robust advocacy on both sides,” he said.