When the Arab Spring spread to Libya in February 2011, Penn State Law student Mariam Elhadri ’12 knew she needed to help from the outside in any capacity she could.
Both of Elhadri’s parents were born and raised in Libya. At age 28, her father was exiled for his support of democracy and human rights and his views against Muammar Gaddafi. “At a very young age, I learned what the price of freedom had cost my parents. My father was never allowed back into Libya and was unable to see his family and friends for 32 years until this past year. Although we were separated from Libya physically, it was always in our hearts through my parents’ stories and memories,” she said.
Lawyers for Justice in Libya is formed
Along with six Libyan lawyers living in a diaspora located across the world, including Dubai, Paris, New York, Madrid, London, and Pennsylvania, Elhadri formed Lawyers for Justice in Libya
(LFJL) with the anticipation of all the legal challenges that may arise during this conflict, from the collection and preservation of evidence to the administration of justice. “We all knew what Gaddafi was capable of,” said Elhadri. “He had been committing human rights violations for 42 years. When the uprising against him began, we expected the atrocities would be immeasurable.”
Fluent in Arabic, Elhadri’s responsibilities include fact-finding investigations, international advocacy projects, drafting reports and press statements, and organizing events. One of the most memorable projects to Elhadri was a training workshop she coordinated held in Sousse, Tunisia, for 30 Libyan lawyers, judges, and political activists who represented 18 different cities and towns in Libya. The participants were trained by LFJL staff and other international experts on monitoring elections and constitutional building in post-conflict environments. “This was the first time the participants were trained in this discipline of law as it was banned from law school curriculums and practice during Gaddafi’s rule,” said Elhadri. “I was tremendously proud to have played a role in such a crucial program. One of our participants went on to become the head commissioner of the election commission. I also had the pleasure of discovering that one of the participants, Abdudayem El-Gharabli ‘81, a prominent Libyan lawyer, is an alumnus of the Law School.”
The most challenging part of the job for Elhadri was processing evidence of the mass human rights abuses that took place during Libya’s uprising. “The sheer volume of case files we initially received was overwhelming, and it had barely covered the first few days in the uprising and a small number of towns,” said Elhadri. “I remember flipping through the files, hoping the next one would not be of a family member or someone I knew. Most of the victims were young people my age who lost their lives by simply demanding to be free.”
Elhadri also managed a video evidence database for international court systems investigating crimes in Libya. She was responsible for documenting horrifying videos of human rights abuses, the shelling of homes, rape, and torture. “It was hard to separate my work and my emotions without thinking of my entire extended family that remained in Libya throughout this time period,” said Elhadri. “But when I recall the sacrifices that these people made to have their voices heard, I feel motivated to work harder.”
As a law student Elhadri was invited to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to train with some of the world’s leading international criminal law attorneys. She was able to share insight into challenges that faced Libya, which at the time was recently placed under ICC jurisdiction by the United Nations Security Council. Elhadri also had the opportunity to attend a press conference in which ICC Prosecutor Ocampo requested ICC judges to issue arrest warrants for three of Libya’s most wanted international criminals: Muammar Gaddafi, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, and Abdullah Senussi.
Working round the clock
Throughout this time, Elhadri was completing her law degree. “Managing law school was a challenge on its own, but adding even more work was a daunting task,” said Elhadri. “I was working on projects at all hours of the day and night that required coordination with other members in different time zones,” she said. “After balancing both law school and LFJL for over a year now, I have learned how to take things day by day. It required a significant amount of foresight, patience, perseverance, and a lot of support from my family. It meant making a lot of sacrifices, but in the end having the experience to do both simultaneously was truly valuable.”
After graduation, Elhadri will continue working with LFJL between offices in London and Tripoli, as a legal staff member handling international criminal law, international humanitarian law, human rights law, election law, and transitional law. “I hope through my work I am able to contribute, to any degree, to a long-lasting, independent judiciary and functioning democratic society in Libya based on the rule of law,” she said.