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U.S. judge pauses lawsuit against Libyan warlord for presidential election

Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter in a meeting in Athens in 2020. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

A U.S. judge is putting a lawsuit against a Libyan warlord on hold until after an election in which he is expected to run for president of the North African nation, saying the plaintiffs acted inappropriately and appear to be using a Virginia federal court to influence an election on the other side of the world.

Khalifa Hifter, a former general, has been battling the United Nations-backed Libyan government for control of the country for years, and multiple lawsuits in the Eastern District of Virginia accuse him of committing torture and war crimes during that conflict. The plaintiffs say Hifter oversaw reckless bombing campaigns, intentional massacres of civilians and torture of prisoners. He was set to sit for a deposition Tuesday, although he has previously failed to appear when scheduled to do so.

A former CIA asset and U.S. citizen, Hifter lived in Northern Virginia for years and has substantial property in the area, according to court records. Relatives of people who allege they were killed by his forces in Libya are seeking to seize some of that wealth in damages.

In an unusual ruling late last week, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said she was concerned that “this litigation is being used to influence Libya’s fragile political situation” and paused the case until after elections currently scheduled for Dec. 24.

A hearing is set for Dec. 3, at which attorneys for the plaintiffs will ask Brinkema to reconsider.

Hifter announced last month that he was stepping down from command of his forces, widely seen as paving the way to run for president in a U.N.-supported attempt to end the country’s long civil war.

The abrupt hold on the litigation came because a dispute in the case of Ibrahim al-Krshiny, who alleges he and his family were targeted by Hifter’s forces because of their hometown. In 2014, the lawsuit asserts, his family’s home came under assault from Hifter’s army. Two of his relatives died in the gunfire. He was taken captive and beaten and electrocuted; he survived but lost an eye, while two of his brothers were killed, according to the lawsuit.

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When al-Krshiny sat for a deposition, Hifter’s attorneys demanded to know who had helped him prepare for the questions. Attorneys for al-Krshiny say revealing the names of anyone in Libya involved in the case would put those people in danger; Hifter’s lawyers say they are entitled to that information. Brinkema ruled that the defendants could ask for a name but not a location.

According to the court record, a representative of the Libyan government then sent a letter to her chambers and an individual law clerk, asking that the court change its ruling. The letter says the person in question is “an employee of a United Nations-accredited human rights organization” and “not a witness” in the case. An attorney for those plaintiffs, Kevin Carroll, then followed up with a call to Brinkema’s chambers.

Such direct communications with judges are generally prohibited.

“The email and phone call are not only improper, they are extremely troubling,” Brinkema wrote. “It is now clear that this litigation is too closely entwined with the elections in Libya. It is therefore not appropriate to continue expending judicial resources until the political situation in Libya is more stable.”

She has issued the same ruling in all three cases against Hifter.

Carroll, the attorney whose call to Brinkema’s chambers prompted the ruling, said he was “concerned about the lives of a colleague’s family” when he reached out to the Libyan government and that he thought the letter would be part of the public record.

“Counsel did not follow proper procedure . . . and sincerely regrets that error,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs are not affiliated with the Libyan government . . . this is not a political case but a war crimes action.”

Lawyers for plaintiffs in one of the other suits against Hifter said in a filing late Monday that they had no knowledge of or involvement in the communications to the court and no connections to the Libyan government.

Those plaintiffs say Hifter’s forces trapped their family members in an area of Benghazi without food or fresh water, then killed those who tried to flee.

“They are simply seeking justice,” their lawyers wrote.

Siobhán O’Grady contributed to this report.

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