The return of the playboy: a useful distraction for Libya’s embattled government

By Simon Allison 6 March 2014

Saadi al-Gaddafi – playboy, would-be pro-footballer and third son of Brother Leader himself – is back in Libya after an uncomfortable exile in Niger. It’s a diplomatic victory for the new Tripoli administration, and a very welcome public relations coup at a time when they really need one. By SIMON ALLISON.

The late, un-lamented Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had seven sons. All were, to various degrees, complicit in his regime, and all are paying or have paid the price.

Moattassem is dead. Khamis is dead. Saif al-Arab is dead. Hannibal and Muhammad have reportedly received political asylum in Oman, along with Gaddafi’s daughter Ayesha. There are just two sons whose fate remains uncertain, although for both the future is grim.

Saif al-Islam is locked up in a jail somewhere in the western Libyan city of Zintan, far from the clutches of the central government in Tripoli. The local militia is using Saif as a bargaining chip to make sure that Zintan is not overlooked by the new administration, and are refusing to hand him over either to a Tripoli court or to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for Saif’s arrest.

Saadi, meanwhile, has spent the last couple of years in exile in Niger, which is where he fled in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. This uncomfortable arrangement has come to an end, however, and on Wednesday the Nigerien authorities sent him back home – allegedly because Saadi and his entourage broke a promise to stay out of Libyan politics.

“They were enjoined to stay quiet and do nothing to destabilise Libya. And unfortunately, the Libyans gave us lots of information that they were not staying quiet,” said Niger’s justice minister Marou Amadou. “We couldn’t keep harbouring people who were taking actions that destabilised Libya.” Amadou did not elaborate on what actions these were.

And so Saadi was flown back to Tripoli, where a less than welcoming committee awaited him. He was shaved, both beard and head, and bundled into a cell – there to face an uncertain justice. He is accused with ordering security forces to fire on protestors at the beginning of the revolution; and implicated in a similar incident at football stadium in the early 2000s.

In many ways, Saadi was the least significant of Gaddafi’s sons. He showed little interest in governing, preferring instead to live the high life and try to make it as a professional footballer. With daddy’s help, of course: Italian clubs Perugia, Sampdoria and Udinese all enjoyed a little of Colonel Gaddafi’s largesse, and letting his son run around for a few minutes in dead rubber games was the least the clubs could do in return.

But this is Libya, and Saadi is a Gaddafi. That makes him a very big fish indeed, no matter his place in the deposed regime’s hierarchy. But now the new government has got him, they have to figure out what to do with him. This is the hard part.

Already, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has promised that Saadi will be “tried in accordance with international law”. This is easier said than done, of course. As the New York Times snidely remarked, “The transitional government has shown little progress in building a credible or independent judiciary that might handle such high-profile cases, to say nothing of the problems it has found in creating a professional army, police force or prison system.”

Speaking of prisons, it’s unclear where exactly Saadi is currently being held. There is one ready-made venue that might be appropriate: the special prison-within-a-prison built to house his brother, Saif al-Islam, for if and when he is eventually transferred from Zintan (presumably, Libyan authorities never thought they’d get hold of Saadi before Saif). It’s not too shabby, either, featuring a five-a-side football court, satellite TV and a kitchen for a private chef.

In fact, the shadow of Saif al-Islam will loom large over Saadi’s trial. Saif is a much more significant prisoner, having taken charge of defending his father against the revolution, and his trial will be a trial of the regime itself, and a chance for Libya to deal with some of its demons. That’s why Libya is so keen to handle it themselves, instead of sending him to The Hague for prosecution at the ICC. The ICC, on the other hand, wants the trial – and the associated limelight, perhaps – to itself, warning that Libya is in no position to offer a fair trial.

If Libya can try Saadi effectively, this would be ample proof that they can handle Saif as well, and might just get the ICC off the government’s back. This just leaves the tricky task of convincing the Zintan militants to hand him over – alas, this doesn’t look like happening any time soon.

For now, though, the government can sit back and enjoy the public relations victory that Saadi’s successful extradition has earned it. It certainly needs a break. It’s been a torrid beginning to 2014 for Zeidan and his allies. First, there was the public threat of a coup from a top general, who called for the entire government to be overthrown. Then there was a scathing Amnesty International report, which excoriated the government’s reliance – and consolidation – of a Gaddafi-era law against freedom of expression. Things culminated on Monday in an attack by armed protestors on the parliament building on Monday which forced nervous MPs to relocate to a 5-star hotel for the foreseeable future – hardly a stable basis for governance.

It’s in this context that Saadi al-Gaddafi’s value lies: if nothing else, he is a very useful distraction. DM

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Photo: Perugia’s Saadi Al Gaddafi awaits the kick-off of the Intertoto Cup first leg match against Allianssi at Perugia’s Curi Stadium July 19, 2003. (Reuters)


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