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Up Close With Mustafa Abud Al-Jeleil, Leader Of Libyan Rebels

Virtually unknown to the rest of the world, this former judge was the first senior cabinet minister to abandon Gaddafi and join the revolution. Now Mustafa Abud Al-Jeleil may be the last best hope to take down the old regime. With some help.On the road to Baida (Al Jazeera)

BAIDA - The road to Mustafa Abud Al-Jeleil - the head of the rebellion against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi - leads into the north of the country, in the mountains some 200 kilometers from the bustling port city of Benghazi. Here lies the town of Baida, where Jeleil calls home.

The climate is different here than down along the coast. Some time after a hail storm had thundered through the streets of the mountain town, a man approaches the car dressed in a long dark coat and a brown, traditional Libyan rounded hood zhanna. This local handler worked for Jeleil when he was still head of Gaddafi's justice ministry, but today no one is working harder than them to take the Libyan dictator down.

Jeleil is not an easy man to meet with. 

As leader of the revolt against Gaddafi, he is constantly on the move, which helps make him a difficult target. He travels in a convoy, guarded by a band of family members all armed to the teeth. He usually travels between his home in Baida and Benghazi, where the Libyan National Transitional Council - the opposition government to Gaddafi - has its headquarters.

The man with the hood and one of Jeleil's security officers take us to an office in the center of Baida. It's long after dark when Jeleil finally appears in a black SUV, accompanied by a group of bodyguards - most of them armed with Kalashnikovs, one with a Belgian FN FAL assault rifle and a cartridge belt strung across his chest.

Jeleil is a delicate, quiet man with a black hood over his head and a white, neatly trimmed beard. At first glance he looks like a scientist, a professor perhaps. He is in every respect the antithesis of the loud, eccentric Gaddafi. Rumors have been circulating in the media that they are negotiating with one another through intermediaries. 

"I heard it on television too," says Jeleil. "One of Gaddafi's people whom many people respect appeared on Libyan television to demand that we stop fighting them. Of course we want to stop fighting - we only want our freedom. But if Gaddafi really wants peace, he has to say so publicly."

Jeleil repeats a demand made by his colleagues in Benghazi that if the Colonel leaves Libya within the next two days, he might be able to avoid future prosecuting. "But ultimately that's for the families of the victims to decide. Gaddafi has killed many people," he says. "Our terms are that Gaddafi must leave the country, go into exile and cease interfering in the political, economic or military affairs of Libya."

According to information from the ranks of the National Transitional Council, they have received indications from Gaddafi loyalists that the dictator wants to make a deal with the opposition. One possible option, they told the rebels, would be free passage for Gaddafi in exchange for immunity from prosecution by the judiciary and maintaining control of his property.

The Council - a 31-member assembly made up of members of various opposition groups and committees from liberated cities - is still considering whether that offer is genuine or whether it's a ruse to divide the opposition and buy time. 

Recent days have seen heavy fighting between Gaddafi's troops and the rebel militia around the oil ports Sawija and Ras Lanuf.

Hopes of a no-fly zone

The Transitional Council has asked the United Nations to establish a no-fly zone to put a stop to the recent air strikes with which the regime has been able to halt the rebel advance in the last few days.

So far, the insurgents haven't been using their own fighter planes. Instead they've been relying on Soviet anti-aircraft guns that are more than 30 years old. Emissaries of the Transitional Council met with representatives of the American government in Egypt's capital Cairo. The subject of the talks was not disclosed.

"We hope that a no-fly zone or a similar measure is imposed to prevent Gaddafi from killing our people," said Jeleil. "He is using his sovereignty over Libyan air space to bring mercenaries, weapons and material into the country to kill Libyans. All we want is a no-fly zone – something to make this a fair fight between Gaddafi and the revolutionaries. But we don't want foreign troops in Libya."

Unfortunately, says Jeleil, Libya's oil is more important to the West than Libya's population. "If there is no international intervention, Gaddafi will destroy our country. He doesn't care if people die." In an interview with a Turkish journalist Gaddafi said that the imposition of a no-fly zone would prove that a colonialist conspiracy was under way. 

"Then every Libyan would see that it's actually all about bringing Libya under control, taking away their freedom and their oil," said Gaddafi. "In this case all Libyans would take up arms and fight." Gaddafi has also repeatedly claimed that the terrorist organization al-Qaida is behind the rebellion.

The Transitional Council rejects this accusation as propaganda designed to frighten the West. 

From 1978 until his appointment four years ago to the post of Justice Minister, Abud Al-Jeleil had worked as a judge. A father of eight, he was the first among Gaddafi's ministers to support the revolution.

"When they began firing live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators, killing 15 people - something I saw here in Baida with my own eyes - and then released prisoners from the jails to wreak havoc and burn down the courthouse, that's when I decided to resign and join the revolution," he says.

An outsider inside the regime

Abud Al-Jeleil's resignation came as no surprise to most Libyans. Even as a minister, he was one of the very few to publicly criticize Gaddafi for obstructing the judiciary, says his political adviser Ahmed Dschebril. "If the court wanted to release a prisoner, the security forces would keep him behind bars," says Dschebril. "When Mr. Abud Al-Jeleil was judge in Tobruk, he ruled in a case where two brothers had killed a man who had slept with their sister. He sentenced the brothers, but then Gaddafi lifted the verdict on the grounds that under the circumstances the crime was understandable."

Jeleil was responsible for clearing up hundreds of cases of government expropriation of land and revising sentences that had been dropped due to weak evidence. This made him popular with many Libyans even though he was part of the regime. They see in him someone who can lead the country if and when the dictator leaves.

"He has stood up to Gaddafi several times," says a 32-year-old local waiter Ibrahim Mansur, who has served Jeleil at his table. "Mr. Mustafa isn't scared of him."

All that Jeleil says is borne from a conviction that Gaddafi can be overthrown. The Libyan National Transitional Council is already thinking about the nation's future after the regime has fallen. "The transitional government will remain in office until Gaddafi falls and the people themselves can decide on their leadership in free elections," said Jeleil. 

"We have to draw up a new constitution with a new democratic state that respects human rights and religious freedom. Some say this is civil war. But I don't think it is. The rebels are trying to liberate their country from this regime. We're fighting against Gaddafi's army, not against the people. And we won't stop until the regime falls. We'll fight to the last man."

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