Senussi is also accused of masterminding a terror campaign that stretched across the globe, including the Lockerbie bombing and the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in London, both cases still of interest to UK police.
Judging the risk of violence from Gaddafi loyalists too great, authorities yesterday moved the case to Tripoli’s maximum security Hadba prison where they are being held.
Outside the prison, dozens of beige army jeeps mounting anti-aircraft guns blocked the streets, while soldiers crouched behind sandbagged emplacements on the prison roof.
Missing from the trial was Gaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam, the first name on the list of the accused, after militia in the mountain town of Zintan refused to release him.
Instead, Zintan held its own hearing, accusing him not of war crimes but of conspiring to escape from the detention where he has been held since his capture in November 2011.
Television pictures showed Gaddafi in Zintan’s own courthouse, and limited him to a single statement: “I request that I be tried in Zintan and not transferred to Tripoli.”
Zintan rebels insist Gaddafi is safer with them, saying former regime elements in the capital want to silence him, rather than see Gaddafi give evidence against them from the dock.
Tripoli prosecution official Siddiq Ahmed Issour told The Scotsman efforts were under way to persuade Zintan to change its mind.
At Hadba’s gates, several hundred people gathered, many displaying photographs of husbands, sons and brothers Senussi is accused of murdering, shouting for his execution without trial. “He killed so many, he should be killed,” one man shouted from the crowd.
A group of black-clad women stood by the gates behind a poster showing pictures of young men slaughtered in the most infamous regime massacre, the killing of 1,200 inmates in the nearby Abu Salem prison.
“They killed my brother, they did terrible things, it is good they have a trial,” said Abdul Salem Yunis, 33.
Inside the closed-doors hearing, Senussi, accused of being Gaddafi’s hatchet man, was charged alongside men representing much of the surviving upper echelon of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.
The charges run to 4,000 pages, detailing a long list of executions, murders, torture, kidnap, rape and embezzlement of state funds both during the Arab Spring revolution and in the dictatorship that went before.
State TV reported that 12 lawyers, sharing the defendants, entered pleas of not guilty and the hearing was adjourned until 3 October. But with Libya facing warring militias and most of its oil ports blockaded by rebelling troops, many think it should not be holding the trial at all.
The International Criminal Court has repeatedly demanded both Gaddafi and Senussi are handed over to the Hague. It has indicted both men for war crimes and crimes against humanity and ruled in July that Libya lacks the capacity for a war crimes trial.
“There are many challenges; access to lawyers, lack of judicial review, and the issue of security,” said Richard Dicker, head of international justice at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “There’s a very fragile security environment that raises very real concerns.”
Ben Emerson and Rodney Dixon, Senussi’s ICC-appointed lawyers, issued a statement condemning the decision to hold his trial without guarantees of both justice and protection for defence witnesses.