The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) today called upon judges to issue arrest warrants for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for "widespread and systematic attacks" that have left thousands of Libyans dead.
"The evidence shows that Muammar Qaddafi personally ordered attacks on unarmed Libyan civilians," said Luis Moreno-Ocampo in The Hague, whose office today presented a 74-page dossier detailing the regime's conduct in the uprising that began three months ago. "His orders are binding ... it's a crime to challenge Qaddafi's authority, and he uses his authority to commit the crimes."
The prosecutor's office had "documented how the three held meetings to plan and direct operations" that included shooting unarmed demonstrators and hunting, imprisoning, and torturing suspected dissidents, he said.
Based on those and other findings, judges will decide in coming weeks whether to issue international arrest warrants for those three Libyans who bear "most responsibility" for civilian deaths. The prosecutor said he is continuing investigations into charges of rape and other war crimes, adding that there would be "no impunity" for the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
An arrest warrant would complicate chances of Qaddafi finding exile outside of Libya. But it also represents a tightening of the legal net at home as regime opponents call for stronger United Nations Security Council sanctions and more effective NATO airstrikes that have been closing in on the Libyan leader.
If the judges decide to issue an arrest warrant for Qaddafi, it would be only the second time that the ICC has targeted a sitting head of state. While the court is relatively young – it came into force in 2002 – a Qaddafi arrest warrant would be a significant step toward implementing justice for war crimes.
Libyan officials dismiss ICC investigation
Hours before Mr. Moreno-Ocampo's announcement in The Netherlands, Libyan officials sought to blunt its impact.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said the government would "not show any attention to the decision" of the ICC. In comments made early Monday after midnight in Tripoli, Mr. Kaim said Qaddafi was "still the leader of the country – but not in charge of day-to-day business."
But Sudan's broad indictment – in which ICC judges took eight months to issue the arrest warrant in an investigation that covered five years of events – did not resemble the ICC's speedy work in Libya, which relied on a wealth of evidence and many willing Libyan insiders and victims, the prosecutor said.
The prosecutor's office was "able to gather direct evidence about orders issued by Muammar Qaddafi himself," said Moreno-Ocampo. "Muammar Qaddafi committed the crimes with the goal of preserving his authority, his absolute authority.... The evidence shows that Qaddafi relies on his inner circle to implement a systematic policy of suppressing any challenge to his authority."
Saif al-Islam was Libya's "de facto prime minister," and brother-in-law al-Sanoussi is the "right hand man, the executioner ... [who] directed personally some of the attacks," he added.
War crimes committed as 'matter of policy'
The focus of the ICC investigation so far has been on the uprising against the regime and how it was brutally suppressed, and not yet on the civil war in which pro-Qaddafi forces have been seen to fire indiscriminately into rebel-held enclaves such as Misurata and the western mountains.
Pro-Qaddafi forces "shot demonstrators with live ammunition, used heavy weaponry against participants in funeral processions, and placed snipers to kill those leaving mosques after prayers," the prosecutor said on Monday.
"The evidence shows that such persecution is still ongoing as I speak today in the areas under Qaddafi control," said Moreno-Ocampo. "Qaddafi forces prepare lists with names of alleged dissidents and they are being arrested, put into prisons in Tripoli, tortured and disappear."
While releasing its first report earlier this month, the prosecutor's office noted that "efforts to cover up the crimes" made it difficult to ascertain a death toll, though shootings in February alone accounted for an estimated 500 to 700.
"War crimes are apparently committed as a matter of policy," the May 4 report said, noting without qualification that the total death toll "is in the thousands."
War-crime allegations include use of imprecise weaponry "such as cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas, in particular Misurata," Moreno-Ocampo said.
Qaddafi: You can't kill the soul that 'lives in the hearts of millions'
Qaddafi's grip on power has been threatened by rebel control of eastern Libya, NATO airstrikes on military targets – and an increasing sense in Libya and beyond that only regime change will break the stalemate.
Qaddafi has therefore lowered his public profile since an April 30 NATO airstrike that, Libyan officials claim, killed his least well-known son, Saif al-Arab, and three grandchildren. Libyan officials said Qaddafi was in their residential house at the time of the strike, but was unhurt.
"I tell the cowardly crusader [NATO] that I live in a place they cannot reach and where you cannot kill me," said a voice that sounded like Qaddafi's in a minute-long audio report that aired on Libyan television late on Friday, according to a translation by Reuters.
"Even if you kill the body you will not be able to kill the soul that lives in the hearts of millions," Qaddafi reportedly said.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini fueled rumors on Friday when he said the Catholic bishop in Tripoli, who has close relations with the Libyan regime, had said Qaddafi had probably been wounded and was no longer in Tripoli.
ICC prosecutor 'almost ready for trial'
Whatever the truth about Qaddafi's whereabouts, the ICC prosecutor said Monday he has "such strong evidence" against the Libyan leadership that he was "almost ready for trial.”
"Qaddafi has total control. Qaddafi is everything in Libya," said Moreno-Ocampo. "So he is committing the crimes, is an indirect perpetrator, because he used the entire Libyan system to commit the crimes. Saif al-Islam and al-Sanoussi are critical components of the system."
If judges opt to issue arrest warrants, Libyans themselves may carry them out, said Moreno-Ocampo, because it was the "only way" to protect civilians from “ongoing persecution.”
Implementing the arrest warrant would "send clear signals to those who commit crimes in Libya or elsewhere: You cannot gain power or retain power committing crimes against humanity," said Moreno-Ocampo. "The world will not allow you to do it."