TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — In a blow to anti-Islamist factions, Libya's highest court on Thursday ruled that general elections held in June were unconstitutional and that the country's parliament and government, which resulted from that vote, should be dissolved.
The development further deepened the rift in the politically divided Libya, which has been mired in months-long clashes and turmoil that have left the country with two rival parliaments and governments, killed hundreds and displaced whole populations of war-torn cities and towns.
The Supreme Constitutional Court handed down the ruling in the capital, Tripoli, which is controlled by Islamist-allied militias from the powerful western coastal city of Misrata.
The militias, which took Tripoli in August after bitter street battles, revived an earlier parliament that ran the country before the elections. They also forced the elected parliament, dominated by anti-Islamists, to leave the capital and convene in the far eastern city of Tobruk.
The fact that Libya's top court ruled from Tripoli raises the question whether it did so under pressure from the militias. The ruling essentially declared illegal a March amendment to the country's transitional constitution that allowed the June elections to take place. Thus, the ruling also rendered the parliament and government that resulted from that vote illegal.
The Tobruk parliament convened later Thursday and rejected the ruling, saying it was handed down "at gunpoint."
"Tripoli is out of control, ruled by militias outside the state legitimacy and therefore, the ruling was issued at gunpoint," it said.
The parliament's Facebook page reported that the house of Supreme Constitutional Court judge Bashir al-Ryani, who had withdrawn from the court Wednesday, was attacked and torched "for (his) refusing to participate."
Abu-Bakr Baeira, a leading lawmaker in Tobruk, described the ruling as "politicized" and warned it would only further partition Libya. "We don't recognize anything that comes out of it," Baeira told The Associated Press over the phone.
However, there were also dissenting voices in the Tobruk parliament — its deputy speaker, Saleh al-Makhzoum, hailed the ruling as a "victory for the nation."
In Misrata, rallies were held, complete with fireworks, to celebrate the ruling.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Washington noted the ruling and was looking to obtain the full text "to understand what the decision implies."
"We have long recognized the House of Representatives as the legitimate parliamentary representative body, so we will take a look at the text and determine what that will mean," she said.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, said it was studying the ruling and warned rival camps from taking actions that only "escalate the existing polarization or result in a further deterioration of the security situation."
The Tobruk parliament was Libya's second elected legislature since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in a 2011 uprising against his rule. Since then, Libya has been gripped by unrest as authorities struggled to reign militias vying for power.
The ruling comes against the backdrop of full-blown war underway in the eastern city of Benghazi — the birthplace of the uprising — where pro-government forces are battling Islamist militias for control of the city.
Also, another warzone has opened up in western Libya, where the Misrata militias and allied fighters from a handful of western towns are fighting pro-government forces, including the rival Zintan militia in the mountain town of Kikla.
In the past three weeks, at least 400 people have been killed in both areas of fighting, thousands wounded and thousands were displaced.
Omar Homaidan, the spokesman for the Tripoli-based parliament, which is not internationally recognized, suggested that the supreme court's reasoning for the ruling was the fact that the March amendment had been adopted without a needed majority in parliament.
"We were aware that the session was being held without the quorum but the parliament was under tremendous pressure to pass the amendment," he said.
Houmaidan said a possible way out of the crisis was to wait for a 60-member panel to finish writing Libya's new constitution, then call a referendum on it and hold elections after that.
Libya never had a constitution under Gadhafi's 42-year-rule and the turmoil that engulfed the nation since his ouster has stood in the way of the panel finishing its work.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.