UN decries attack on court in Libya ahead of national vote

CAIRO (AP) — The U.N. mission in Libya condemned on Friday an attack by armed men on an appeals court as it was set to re-examine an earlier decision that disqualified the son of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi from running for president.

On Thursday, armed men surrounded the court in the southern town of Sabha and prevented judges from convening to look into Seif al-Islam Gadhafi's appeal. Earlier, the country's electoral body had deemed Seif al-Islam ineligible to take part in the presidential race set for next month, citing his previous convictions.

“Attacks against judicial or election facilities or judicial or elections personnel are not only criminal acts, punishable under Libyan law, but also undermine Libyans’ right to participate in the political process,” tweeted the U.N. mission, known as UNSMIL.

Libya is to hold the first round of presidential elections on Dec. 24, after years of U.N.-led attempts to usher in a more democratic future and end the country’s civil war. However, the upcoming vote faces many challenges, including unresolved issues over laws governing the elections and occasional infighting among armed groups. Other obstacles include the deep rift that remains between the country’s east and west and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops.

The oil-rich North African county is currently governed by an interim government that was elected by Libyan delegates after U.N.-led talks in Geneva in February.

Interim Interior Minister Khaled Mazen vowed to hunt down and prosecute the assailants in Thursday's attack. He insisted that the transitional government is keen on securing the electoral process in order to encourage all Libyans to vote, according to Libya's state-owned news agency.

On Wednesday, Libya's High National Elections Committee decided to exclude Seif al-Islam from the race, citing his criminal record. He had been sentenced to death by a Tripoli court in 2015 for using violence against protesters in a 2011 uprising against his father, but that ruling has since been called into question by Libya’s rival authorities. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity related to the uprising.

The announcement of his possible candidacy stirred controversy across the divided country, where a number of other high-profile candidates have also emerged in recent weeks. Among them are powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter and the country’s interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

“The Mission reiterates its call for holding transparent, fair and inclusive elections on 24 December,” said UNSMIL.

The U.S. Embassy in Libya also issued a statement on Friday voicing concern over the attack. It condemned the attack and stressed that the electoral process must be protected.