Government refused to hand Muammar Gaddafi's son and spymaster over to international criminal court for war crimes
It is Libya's trial of the decade, the playboy scion and the sinister spymaster facing their accusers in a case that promises to lift the lid on both the horrors and the excesses of the former regime.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, and Abdullah al-Senussi will go on trial on Thursday facing a litany of charges and possible death penalties if found guilty. But the case has also put the new, precarious Libya itself on trial as it defies the international criminal court, which has ordered that the pair be transferred to The Hague.
Officials are eager to reassure the world that Libya will be able to stage a fair trial and is justified in wanting to mete out justice to its own, rather than handing over the pair to face international justice. "We will not have Mickey Mouse trials under this government," the justice minister, Salah Marghani, told the Guardian. "We had Mickey Mouse trials in the past and we saw the results. We had trials in sports stadiums and town squares with terrible results."
Yet the authorities have been unable even to bring Gaddafi to Tripoli from western Libya, where rebels captured him in November 2011.
The government has failed to persuade the city of Zintan's powerful militia to hand Gaddafi over, and he will not appear alongside Senussi and 28 other former regime officials on Thursday.
For three decades Senussi was Muammar Gaddafi's chief enforcer, accused of oppression at home and terrorism abroad. Senussi, 63, shared the Bedouin and army background of his boss and was chief hatchet-man to one of the world's most brutal and idiosyncratic regimes. In official photographs of the flamboyant dictator, Senussi's heavy, dark face is a constant feature, characteristically standing off-camera, eyes scanning the crowd.
Married to Muammar Gaddafi's sister-in-law, Senussi oversaw an oppression that revelled in public displays of brutality. Sport stadiums were used to stage mass executions that were broadcast on live television.
The brutality was the signature of a regime that ruled by terror. One film, viewed by the Guardian, shows a political opponent being beaten to death in one of the ruler's compounds by a swarm of soldiers, each competing to land the most savage blows. The man is shown being dragged through the throng, one soldier pushing through the crowd, brandishing a knife for the camera, which he uses to hack at the victim.
Senussi is most reviled for one particular crime, the massacre of 1,200 political prisoners at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996, which witnesses say he personally supervised.
Azerdin Madani, jailed at Abu Salim in the 1980s for his part in a failed assassination attempt against Muammar Gaddafi, remembered Senussi patrolling the corridors: "He was responsible for all that happened there, all bad things. He was the worst. When he was walking outside [the cells], you would know, you would feel the shiver along your back."
Madani suffered torture and near-starvation at the hands of Senussi's jailers, but says: "I want to see him have a proper trial; he should have justice. I want him to see that this is the difference between his way and ours."
Abroad, Senussi is linked to a wave of killings, including the 1984 shooting of British PC Yvonne Fletcher and the Lockerbie bombing; France has already convicted him in absentia over the destruction of a French airliner over the Sahara in 1989.
The case against Gaddafi opens a very different box – that of the excesses and wild years of the former ruler's children. After Tony Blair ushered in the end of international sanctions on Libya by meeting his father in 2004, Gaddafi, 41, moved to a luxurious mansion in Hampstead, London, to enjoy the high life.
Slim and boisterous, he numbered Lord Mandelson, financier Nathaniel Rothschild and Prince Albert of Monaco among his friends. The royal family entertained him at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The London School of Economics awarded him a controversial doctorate after a charity foundation he controlled donated £1.5m to the university.
Gaddafi was also an intermediary in his father's foreign dealings, arranging with British authorities the return in 2008 of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and giving big oil concessions to BP shortly afterwards.
In the early days, Gaddafi portrayed himself as a reformer. That vanished with the coming of war, when he famously wagged his finger at rebels on state television. That finger is now missing; Gaddafi insists it was severed by a Nato bomb as he fled Tripoli at the end of the revolution.
Prosecutors say both men will face a four-page charge sheet featuring crimes from the time of the civil war and the dictatorship that preceded it.
But with the country fragmenting amid spiralling violence, many wonder whether Libya can hold an effective trial. Gaddafi's ICC-appointed lawyer, John Jones QC, called for this week's trial to be cancelled. He told the Guardian: "None of the prerequisites for a fair trial are in place."
Earlier this month, a unit of gendarmerie kidnapped Senussi's daughter, Anoud, from the custody of justice ministry police in Tripoli, underlining the government's inability to control its own security forces.
Human rights groups say the kidnapping puts a question mark over Libya's ability to hold a fair trial. "The abduction of Senussi's daughter sends a very chilly message on the threats to potential witnesses," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice programme in New York. "The stakes for Libya are very high, in terms of projecting, in this trial, that the rule of law is being applied."
Libya's decision to go ahead with the trial may also see the patience of ICC judges snap.
Since Gaddafi and Senussi were captured, The Hague has repeatedly castigated the Libyan authorities for failing to hand over both men to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Last year ICC official Melinda Taylor was detained for several weeks by Zintan militia after trying to visit Gaddafi.
Holding a trial in defiance of ICC rulings may see the court complain to the UN security council, which ordered the Libya investigations two years ago.
Back then, Libya's rebels were desperate for international support for their uprising, requesting the UN to order the ICC into action. Now, a more confident government insists neither man will be sent to The Hague.
Marghani said he hoped the ICC would be patient with Libya, emphasising that all would depend on whether the world sees a fair trial. "It is very important for the Libyans now that all the conditions of a fair trial are met. It is how we will be judged by history," he said.