- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2020

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) - A Libyan military commander who previously lived for decades in Virginia says he deserves immunity from a pair of civil lawsuits accusing him of atrocities and indiscriminate killings because he is Libya’s head of state.

Family members who say their loved ones were killed or tortured by Khalifa Hifter’s forces have filed two separate lawsuits against him in federal court in Alexandria. The lawsuits seek millions of dollars in damages that could be recovered from property Hifter, a dual U.S. and Libyan citizen, and his family still own throughout northern Virginia.

Hifter leads the self-styled Libyan National Army, a faction in a civil war that has raged in the country for years. Once a lieutenant to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Hifter defected to the U.S. during the 1980s and spent many years living in northern Virginia. He is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his time in exile.

Hifter returned to Libya in 2011 after Gadhafi’s fall, and Hifter’s army gained control of the eastern part of Libya. Last year, he launched a campaign to take Tripoli, its capital. But his army suffered significant setbacks in recent months after the United-Nations-backed government opposing Hifter received military support from Turkey.

Hifter has received Russian and Egyptian backing.

Initially, Hifter did not respond to the lawsuits in Virginia, and a magistrate in one of the cases had recommended that the plaintiffs be awarded a default judgment. But earlier this month, lawyers representing Hifter sent a letter to the judge saying he wanted to defend himself. Hifter opponents who support the lawsuits against him say he changed tactics in the lawsuit after suffering military setbacks that might at some point force him to flee Libya.

In court motions filed Thursday, Hifter’s lawyers say he merits head-of-state status that would render him immune from civil suit under U.S. law. The U.S. actually supports the United Nations-backed government that has been fighting Hifter. But Hifter’s lawyers point to an April 2019 phone call President Donald Trump placed to Hifter in which Trump reportedly praised Hifter for his efforts to fight terrorism.

Faisal Gill, a lawyer for plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, rejected the notion that Hifter deserves head-of-state immunity.

“An off-hand comment from President Trump is not official US policy,” Gill said.

Hifter makes other arguments seeking dismissal of the suits, including claims that he was not properly served notice of the lawsuit and that the issues delve into a “political question” which courts are unsuited to resolve.

Hifter’s lawyers also say the allegations of indiscriminate killing and torture are not valid and that the U.S. law designed to protect torture victims is “not intended to create liability for collateral civilian casualties resulting from legitimate military operations undertaken in a civil war.”

A hearing on the motions to dismiss is scheduled for Sept. 15 in Alexandria.

Hifter’s filing comes as Libya’s U.N.-supported government, which opposes Hifter, announced a cease-fire Friday across the oil-rich country.

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