WASHINGTON — Before this spring, few Americans had heard of Mustafa Abdul Jalil, now the head of Libya's National Transitional Council and the man poised to lead the country's transition from dictatorship to democracy.
But a year before Libyans poured into the streets demanding the resignation of leader Moammar Ghadafy, American officials already had identified Abdul Jalil as one of the dictator's most outspoken critics and portrayed him as fair and well-respected in State Department cables.
A December 2009 cable from the American ambassador in Tripoli, Gene Cretz, passes along praise for Abdul Jalil, who was then the justice minister. Officials at Human Rights Watch told U.S. Embassy staff privately that Abdul Jalil was "a proponent of the rule of law," according to the cable, one of a trove of classified documents obtained by WikiLeaks and provided to McClatchy and other news organizations.
"Abduljalil (sic) told HRW that he would continue to fight against the culture of corruption that allowed security services to operate above the law," the cable said.
In a cable sent the next month, embassy staff describe the first meeting between Abdul Jalil and Cretz. Abdul Jalil described efforts to reform Libya's criminal code — efforts that he spearheaded. The reforms would replace prison time with fines for some offenses and ultimately reserve the death penalty for murder only, he told Cretz.
Biographical notes in the cable mention that Abdul Jalil communicated the entire time in Arabic and spoke no English. But the language barrier did not appear to prevent American officials from forming a positive impression: "According to his staff and several judges, he is well-regarded and considered to be fair-minded."
Just days later, Abdul Jalil stunned many Libyans by submitting his resignation, telling Libya's General People's Congress that he could not accomplish what he hoped to with Libya's justice system. He was particularly frustrated, he said, by the government's refusal to free 300 prisoners whose convictions had been overturned.
Gadhafi refused to accept the resignation, and Abdul Jalil remained in his post. In a cable in early February describing the situation, the U.S. Embassy noted that Jalil is "considered to be a fair-minded technocrat."
While the embassy noted that Gadhafi might fire Jalil to save face, it aptly noted, "This is likely not the final installment of Abduljalil's (sic) political drama."
That was correct. Abdul Jalil remained in his position as justice minister until this spring, when he became the first member of Gadhafi's cabinet to join the rebel movement.
For Heba Morayef, a researcher in HRW's Middle East division, that was hardly a surprise. Morayef met Abdul Jalil on two occasions and was part of the team providing descriptions that the U.S. Embassy mentioned in its cables.
After the government announced in 2009 that it would investigation a 1996 prison massacre that killed more than 1,000 Libyans, Abdul Jalil told Morayef and HRW officials that the investigation was a sham.
In an interview Monday, Morayef said she was struck by Abdul Jalil's "unprecedented" public criticism of Libya's security agency, with Abdul Jalil telling a leading newspaper the prisoners whose sentences had been overturned should be freed.
"I think it was a very serious political risk at the very least, but it wasn't that long ago that Gadhafi would also personally pursue people in his government who would criticize him," she said.
While Abdul Jalil's role in a post-Gadhafi Libya remains to be seen, Morayef said his outlook differs significantly from that of Gadhafi's dictatorship, in which there was "zero respect for the rule of law."
"What he consistently pushed for was a strict application of the law," she said. "He really believes in the need for a rule of law and the institution of the judiciary."
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