Extradition of Qaddafi's son puts ball in Libya's court

With last night's extradition, Libya now has two sons of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi in custody. But its judicial system seems ill-prepared to dispense justice. 

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Police officers celebrate in front of a prison where Saadi Qaddafi, son of Muammar Qaddafi, is held, in Tripoli, March 6, 2014. Niger has extradited Saadi, who just arrived in Tripoli and was brought to a prison, the Libyan government said on Thursday.

Last night Saadi Qaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator, reluctantly boarded a plane in Niger and flew home to Tripoli, reportedly in the custody of Libyan security agents. His extradition is both an achievement and a challenge for Libya, three years after the revolt that toppled Muammar Qaddafi's regime. 

Saadi Qaddafi is the latest of several fugitive former regime figures taken into Libyan custody. But it's unclear whether Libya’s shaky government can ensure any of them fair and speedy trials.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has said that after decades of Muammar Qaddafi's corrosive and capricious rule, Libya remains too insecure and its court system too weak to guarantee that big fish suspects are properly investigated and tried.

The question of how to handle former regime officials has been a source of contention. Last year, militias parked gun trucks outside ministry buildings to force the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law barring many former officials – including some who swiftly joined the opposition after protests gained traction – from politics.

Then there’s the case of Saadi's brother, Saif al-Islam, who was groomed as the dictator's successor. In February 2011, in a rambling televised speech, he prophesied “rivers of blood” if protests continued against his father, a speech that earned him infamy both at home and abroad.

Today, Saif al-Islam is the object of a tug-of-war between the ICC, Libya’s government, and the militia from the city of Zintan, near Tripoli, that captured and continues to hold him.

That militia, the Abubaker Essadiq Brigade, nabbed Saif al-Islam in the deserts of southern Libya as he tried to flee in November 2011. According to its commander, the militia answers to Libya’s defense ministry, and Saif al Islam's trial by a Zintan court – which has was ordered last October by a Tripoli court but has been postponed several times - is legally equivalent to a trial by a court in the capital.

Still, in a reminder of the power struggle between Libya's central authorities and the heavily armed militia that hold sway in many towns and cities, Commander Al Ajemi al Eteiri argues that transferring the former dictator's son would be both unnecessary and impractical.

“In Tripoli, there’s no chance for a fair trial, and no security,” he says, citing disorder in the capital. “Zintan is better in every way.”

Said Khattaly, a GNC member and chairman of its committee on foreign affairs, disagrees. “[Saif al Islam] should be tried in Tripoli – that’s the capital,” he says. But “the government is weak and can’t force [militias]” to hand him over. 

The ICC, meanwhile, wants to try Saif al-Islam for alleged crimes against humanity. Last year it rejected an appeal by Libya’s government to try him at home. Nevertheless, Libya has moved forward with his trial, as well as that of other regime figures, with the ICC powerless to intervene. 

“It is understandable that the authorities may want to proceed promptly and try these individuals in Libya,” said Amnesty International in a statement last September urging Libya to surrender Saif al-Islam and former intelligence chief Abdallah Senussi to the ICC. “But such trials today will not serve justice. Libya’s justice system is in desperate need of an overhaul.”

That assessment was echoed in a Feb. 13 report by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews the previous month with Saif al-Islam, Mr. Senussi, and former prime ministers Mahmoudi al Baghdadi and Abuzeid Dorda. All four men are on trial for alleged serious crimes during the 2011 revolt, the report said, and told HRW that they had either had inadequate access to legal counsel, or no legal counsel at all.

It’s not clear what charges Saadi, a reputed playboy and failed professional soccer player, may face. He had been under house arrest in Niger since 2011. He may be charged for alleged crimes during the 2011 revolt, as well as alleged armed misappropriation of property and armed intimidation during a stint as the head of Libya’s national soccer federation, reported Reuters, citing the state news agency.

Libya’s government said in a statement today that Saadi would be treated in accordance with international law.

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