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The Anti-Ghaddafi obsession and his posthumous trial

The obstinate pressure by the Libyan authorities to put one of Muammar Ghaddafi’s sons on trial reveals more a calculated provocation of patriotism in opposition to federalist movements, than the conviction that it is necessary to defend judicial sovereignty.

Ulises Canales

Almost six months after installing itself in government, the National Transitional Council (NTC) believes that it has found in Saif Al-Islam Al-Ghaddafi the opportunity to parody the judicial spectacle it had dreamed about, which was aborted by the assasination of the ex-leader in October 2011.

Beyond the likes and dislikes towards those who practically put Libya up for sale in the name of freedom and democracy, the change of direction of negotiations with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in recent weeks strengthens the first hypothesis, which is shared by several analysts.

The ICC accused Saif Al-Islam, his late father and the ex-chief of intelligence Abdullah Al-Senoussi (also in custody), of crimes against humanity, presumed to have been committed during the opposition revolts which broke out in February 2011 in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The planned trial in Tripoli of Ghaddafi’s most media-conscious son could be well described as “the trial that could be and never was”, independent of the fact that whether in Tripoli, The Hague or in Zintan it will be subject to an extreme mixture of hate, vengeance and frustration.

Never was” and already will not be, because many people are agreed that following the physical elimination of the Libyan colonel, his domestic enemies and those in the west and among arab states who encouraged his overthrow, “deprived themselves”  of attacking and defeating him during his life.

This is quite evident in the demonstrations of rejoicing, or at least in the silent connivance at the disturbing exhibition of the corpses of Ghaddafi and his son Muatassim in refrigerators in the market in Misratah, after they had been summarily executed near Sirte.

The ICC and the NTC

But “could be”, because after negotiations, disagreements and pressures, the tribunal attached to the UN seems to have given up demanding the transfer of Saif to The Hague, and agreed for him to sit in the dock in Libya, under international security and observation.

With pressures that bordered on begging, the Court had asked Libya at the beginning of April for the ‘immediate’ transfer of the detained, after rejecting for a second time  a moratorium requested by the government in Tripoli aimed at gaining time and delaying the procedures.

The negotiating process included open threats to criticize the north-African country in the UN Security Council for lack of cooperation, as well as hurried visits to those Arab countries highly involved with the west, with the aim of dissuading the leaders of the NTC.

Months earlier the ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo had travelled to Tripoli and spoken with the judges and other authorities, including the NTC chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, encountering only negative responses.

The spokesman for the Libyan Government, Nasser Al-Manaa made it clear that Ghaddafi’s second son would be “tried in Tripoli according to the rules of the Ministry of Justice, the criminal police and the security apparatus, who are those responsible for his detention”.

Abdul-Jalil pointed out, in addition, that he will be tried according to the criteria of the International Tribunal and its judges, but that they will also take into account what he called “the aspirations of the Libyan people”, for which read “vengeance”.

However, the uncertainty persists to the extent that no-one dares to predict the outcome of the complex negotiations between the Libyan Ministry of Justice, and the militias in the city of Zintan who captured and have held Saif Al-Islam under arrest since last November.

Armed groups from Zintan who fought against Ghaddafi, with the support of NATO aircraft, arrested his son in the southern village of Ubari, together with several assistants, as he was escaping from the stronghold loyal to his father in Bani Walid.

The military commanders in Zintan refused to deliever their prisoner to the NTC, arguing that they were afraid he would be helped to escape while he was in Tripoli, or that the local insurgents themselves would execute him while he was on his way there.

Spokespersons of the Libyan government admitted that a committee composed of legal experts and local chiefs from Zintan refused to transfer him, confirming the chaotic and ungovernable situation then in force, in what was euphemistically called “New Libya”.

Responding to the possibilities of escape or assasination, this commission asked that Ghaddafi remain in Zintan, and that Libyan judges and international observers travel some 160 Km south east from Tripoli if they wanted to be present at the planned trial.

Without any doubt the attitude of the new authorities in Libya towards the ICC allowed them to win approval from many people, either by calming desires for vengeance or for their nationalistic fervour, especially at a point of growing instability and successionist attempts in Benghazi.

A federal Libya ?

The first anniversary of what in Libya is considered ‘the revolution’ was celebrated on Feb. 17th.

During fighting between the Zuwaya and Tubus tribes, which then spread to other regions involving other clans, as well as a defence of federalism launched from the cradle of the rebellion, Benghazi.

Abdul-Jalil, in his effective role of Chief of State admitted just 10 days later from Misratah, that Libya ran the risk of disintegrating and “transforming itself into a federation of cities, villages, regions and tribal areas”. International humanitarian organizations, generally in association with the NTC, recognized that the ‘new Libya’ was in danger from countless and systematic violations and trampling of rights committed by those who said they were fighting for democracy and freedom.

Illegal detentions, torture of prisoners, imprisonment on racial grounds, summary executions and war crimes perpetrated with total impunity during peacetime, without shame or any prospect of trials, were documented by various inspectors.

However the priorities of the NTC are still tied to their obsession with Ghaddafi, judging by recent visits by Abdul-Jalil to Quatar, a strong supporter of the armed rebellion, and to Algeria where he asked President Abdelaziz Bouteflika “to contain the Ghaddafi family”.

As he knew in advance of the Algerian government’s refusal to revoke their humanitarian asylum granted to the ex-leader’s wife and their 3 children, Abdul-Jalil sought a commitment from Algeria that they would block any actions by the family that he considered destabilizing.

Regional analysts maintain that this was to distract attention from the call by thousands of ex-combatants in Benghazi, the centre of the ancient region of Cyrenaica, supporting a return to the federal structure which existed in Libya between 1951 and 1963, under the rule of King Idris I.

The north-African country was then divided into three administrative regions: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica, the latter extending from the Meditteranean coast southwards to the Chadian frontier, and bordered by the Egyptian frontier at Sirte, Ghaddafi’s birthplace.

On March 6th the federalists elected Ahmed Zubair Al-Senussi, a descendant of the late king, as leader of the self-proclaimed Interim Regional Council of Cyrenaica, a vast area which holds three-quarters of the country’s oil reserves.

Al-Senussi and his followers announced their intention to establish a security force to protect Cyrenaica in cooperation with the country’s still battered army and security force, but this has not assuaged the anxiety of the Libyan leadership.

The partisans of federalism have stated that they recognize the NTC as the legitimate representative of Libya in foreign affairs, but paradoxically they want to administer taxation, natural resources, the police force and other minor local issues now under the control of the government in Tripoli.

Together with the growing fear of fragmentation of the country, the authorities are concerned that the secessionists will insist on throwing out the law which will regulate the June elections for a Constituent Assembly.

In its place the defenders of Cyrenaica want a regulation that “distributes in fair proportions” the seats of the Assembly among the three historical regions, on the basis of the number of inhabitants of the major cities and towns.

With an army trying to re-form itself from an amalgam of soldiers and dissatisfied ex-insurgents, the threats of Abdul-Jalil to use force against signs of separatism are pointless, and that explains the obstinate desire to try Saif Al-Islam, a posthumous trial of his father. (PL)

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:

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