ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal judge in Virginia on Friday ruled that war-crimes lawsuits against a Libyan military commander who used to live in the U.S. must stay on hold for now to avoid interfering with upcoming presidential elections there.
At a hearing in Alexandria, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected a request to revive the lawsuits against Khalifa Hifter, who has controlled large swaths of the nation during a yearslong civil war.
Brinkema last month paused a trio of civil lawsuits against Hifter, just as he was scheduled to be deposed in them. Hifter has declared himself a candidate for president in elections later this month, and Brinkema said she was concerned that the lawsuits were being used to further political agendas rather than protect victims of torture.
The lawsuits allege that Hifter is responsible for killings and torture of political opponents.
Once a lieutenant to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Hifter defected to the U.S. during the 1980s and spent many years living in northern Virginia, where he and his family continue to own extensive property, according to the lawsuits. He is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his time in exile.
Hifter claimed immunity to the lawsuits as Libyan head of state. But Brinkema rejected those arguments and allowed the lawsuits to proceed. Hifter was due to be deposed when she decided to halt the lawsuits temporarily last month.
Brinkema made clear on Friday, though, that the pause in the lawsuits is only temporary, and that Hifter will have to sit for a deposition shortly after the elections are concluded.
The only hitch, she said, would be if Hifter won the election, which might allow Hifter to raise new claims of immunity. Brinkema said that issue could be dealt with down the road if it comes to fruition.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs had asked the judge to lift the stay, citing in part the fact that a judge has ruled Hifter ineligible for inclusion on the ballot.
But Brinkema said the situation remains too unsettled, and there was no harm in a short delay to get past the elections.
Libya has been wracked by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled Gadhafi in 2011. Over the past decade, the oil-rich nation had been split between a government in the east, backed by Hifter, and a U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli, aided by western-based Libyan militias.