Keeping Saif: what to do with Gaddafi’s most famous son

By Simon Allison 12 June 2012

As they watch the shambles over Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s fate unfold in Libya, one can almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from the American government: thank God for Guantanamo Bay, they’re saying, for extraordinary rendition, and for the occasional summary execution. Because if the non-trial of Gaddafi’s son is teaching us anything, it’s that modern justice is slow, complicated and unsatisfactory; and that no one trying to enforce it emerges with their reputation intact. By SIMON ALLISON

More than six months ago, in November 2011, the most famous of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons was captured while trying to flee to neighbouring Niger. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was the moderate face of his father’s regime: well-spoken and sharp, with a mind trained in the learned halls of the London School of Economics and an image honed by top public relations companies. It was through Saif that Gaddafi’s Libya rehabilitated its reputation, and it was through him that the country lost it completely: the revelation that the diplomats’ darling was every inch his father’s son, down to the last dead protestor, helped to turn the tide of international opinion against Gaddafi. Conclusively.

Since his capture, Saif has languished in prison, a guest not of Libya’s interim government but instead of the rebel militia that captured him; armed men from the city of Zintan, who know that they have in their possession a most powerful bargaining chip, one that, if used effectively, can secure their own and their city’s future in the new Libya, where the many rebel militias that formed the rebel movement are still jostling for the spoils of their success.

But no one is quite sure what to do with him. The Libyan government wants to try him, of course; he would be a potent symbol of the deposed regime, which never had to answer for its crimes in a court of law. Current leaders have even gone so far as to construct a special prison in Tripoli to house him; the Guardian reported that the yet-to-be occupied building features an indoor football court, basketball court, private mosque, satellite television, and a kitchen, where a private chef will keep Saif fed in the style to which he is accustomed. But despite the luxury of the accommodation, Saif is apparently none too keen on a transfer; he has refused to appoint a Libyan defence lawyer in the knowledge that no trial can commence until he has done so.

Saif is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the bombing and shooting of civilian protestors in February 2011. The ICC doesn’t think that the Libyan justice system, in disarray after decades of systematic abuse under Gaddafi, is in any shape to prosecute Saif fairly. They think they can do a better job. In early April this year, the court ordered Libya to hand him over – a demand the Libyan government ignored.

Not that the government could do much about it anyway. The National Transitional Council (NTC), which leads the country through this interim phase, can’t even keep control of Tripoli airport or the prime minister’s office, both of which have recently been over-run by renegade militiamen. They certainly have no sway over Zintan, a relatively large and well-organised militia which has been consistent in wanting to try Saif locally. “They fear if they hand over Saif al-Islam to Tripoli, it will be under a weak government and there is a chance that Saif al-Islam might even escape,” said Omar al-Saleh, a Libya-based correspondent for Al-Jazeera.

As if to underline how little control either the NTC or the ICC have over the situation, four ICC representatives have been detained in Zintan while meeting with Saif. The meeting had been organised by the NTC, and Zintan was reportedly on board – until, that is, the defence lawyer appointed by the ICC to represent Saif handed him a document deemed controversial. The Zintanis claim that the document in question was a letter from a Saif ally who is also wanted by Libya, but this has not been confirmed; and a Libyan official claimed the document was filled with strange shapes and drawings, clearly some kind of “code”. The lawyer, Melinda Taylor, was also allegedly carrying a pen camera, indicating that some kind of espionage or illegal activity was going on.

The ICC has sent a second delegation to Libya to try and secure their release, but the incident has been embarrassing for them. If they can’t even guarantee the security of their own employees, how can they be trusted with some of the world’s most dangerous men? And how poor is their political judgment if they send someone into a danger zone armed with a camera pen, a device which would get its owner arrested at almost any security checkpoint in the Middle East?
Most likely the situation will be resolved in the next days or weeks, with the release of the detained representatives, but it’s yet another delay in the mission to bring Saif to justice. Actually, trying him is proving harder than capturing him. It is embarrassing complications like these that have supported America’s program of extraordinary renditions, drone assassinations and Guantanamo Bay; by keeping their version of justice well out of the public eye, they remain completely in control of the process.

Nonetheless, as chaotic as it has been, the tussle between the Libyan government, the ICC and Zintan for the right to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is all the better for its transparency; when it does happen, the trial will offer Saif the kind of justice that his father’s regime never could. As for where it’s going to happen, or who will oversee the trial, that’s still an open question. Libya and the ICC should remember the cliché: possession is nine-tenths of the law. DM

Read more:

  • The secrets of Saif Gaddafi’s jail: basketball court, satellite TV and chef for just one in the Guardian
  • ICC team in Libya after delegation detained on VOA

Photo: Saif al-Islam (REUTERS)



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