In a secret location, somewhere among the sandstone and concrete buildings of
the straggling mountain town of Zintan, Libya's most prominent prisoner awaits
3 months after he was captured far away in the Sahara desert dressed as a
Bedouin tribesman, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son and one-time heir apparent of
Libya's fallen leader, is being kept here, ostensibly to keep him safe from
harm until the new Libyan government can organise a trial for him.
But the ad hoc nature of his detention highlights just how little control that
government yet has over the country and over rival local militias, like that
from Zintan which captured him.
"Zintan people must keep him for now because Tripoli is not ready to keep him
safe. Outside Zintan, he could be kidnapped or killed," said one Zintan
resident, chemistry teacher Bilgasim Abdallah, repeating the credo of the
35,000 townsfolk that he risks sharing his father's bloody fate if taken to the
"Here in Zintan, we can protect him but he needs to be handed over to face
justice," Abdallah said as he checked out the wares at a local bakery in the
town this week. "We treat him well. We feed him. It's our culture and the
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) has accepted this state of
affairs. Indeed, it has had little choice. The NTC head told Reuters 2 weeks
ago that the 39-year-old, London-educated Saif al-Islam would be moved to a
Tripoli prison within two months and then face trial.
But though an investigation by the prosecutor-general's office is under way,
many are sceptical that the interim leadership, with its hands full trying to
impose itself on a host of fractious local groups as it tries to organise a
first free election in June, truly has the means to hold and try him.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague indicted Saif al-Islam in
June for crimes against humanity stemming from the crackdown on the Libyan
revolt. But the NTC insists he will be tried at home and will be given a fair
hearing. The ICC may yet insist that he be sent to The Hague.
Saif al-Islam's supporters, including surviving siblings who found refuge
abroad, say they doubt he will be given a fair trial in Libya. He faces the
death penalty if found guilty by a Libyan court, a prison term if convicted by
In Zintan, a town that prides itself on a history of martial prowess far beyond
its modest size and prosperity, the militia commanders holding him are keen to
stress that they are loyal to the government in Tripoli and simply doing their
"Everyone knows that we are treating him well, just like any other prisoner. He
is in good health and in a secure place," Abdelhamid Abouderbala, head of
Zintan's military council, told Reuters in the town - though he declined to
offer specifics on exactly where his famous captive was being held.
"He is fine," he said. "He doesn't have any problems. He is waiting for his
trial. There is no place more secure.
"When they ask us, he will be moved immediately. They didn't ask us yet. If
they do, as a military council, as Zintani people, we will do as the government
and the NTC say."
In Zintan, people are quick to contrast their treatment of the son with the
fate of his father after he was captured by fighters from the coastal city of
Misrata. Muammar Gaddafi was abused and killed and his body put on public
display for days.
But their critics complain Zintanis may be holding onto Saif al-Islam as a
bargaining chip to claim a favourable chunk of the expected spoils in the
contest between rival groups for power.
Within days of Saif al-Islam's capture, a Zintani was named defence minister in
the new interim government. Zintani rebels fought all over the country during
the war, including in the decisive push on Tripoli in August. Many are still
based far from home, they say, to protect oilfields and other key sites.
Among these, Zintani fighters control Tripoli's main airport. And, fired with
ambition, they want to turn their own local dirt strip into another
international gateway to Libya.
But Abouderbala, speaking at his headquarters in Zintan, denied any ulterior
motives: "When we started the revolution, we weren't looking for rewards. We
aren't waiting for anything.
"The revolution was about freeing Libya."
CAPTIVE OR GUEST?
Saif al-Islam, who was awarded a doctorate by the London School of Economics,
was seen as the business-friendly face of Libya in the years after his father
rapprochement with Western powers. But his image transformed from that of
liberal reformer to a key figure in his father's fight against rebels seeking
his overthrow. Having vowed to die fighting, he was wounded and later taken
near the southern town of Obari, without a struggle.
After flying him to Zintan on November 19, local fighters said Saif al-Islam
told them he was relieved to find himself captured by them. The man who led the
patrol that caught him in the desert said the prisoner had no reason to have
changed his mind.
"I don't communicate with Saif but I know he is in good health," Alajmi Ali
Ahmed al-Atiri said. "Like other prisoners, he is getting food, he can pray, he
can go out in the sun."
Both the international Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have visited Saif
al-Islam in detention in Zintan. HRW quoted him as having no complaints about
the physical conditions - including medical treatment and surgery on a wounded
hand - but that his main concern was the lack of access to family and a lawyer.
In his first days in captivity, local media aired an interview with Saif
al-Islam in which he called the townsfolk his "brothers". Recently, a picture
of him sitting down for a substantial-looking meal emerged on the Internet.
"We saw this and we thought - is he a prisoner or a guest?" 68-year-old Shaaban
Ahmed said as he surveyed the street outside his son's grocery store -
betraying some of the frustration that some Zintanis feel about their
Many, it seems, would like to see him moved to Tripoli and off their hands
soon. Others, with painful memories of Gaddafi's rule and the war which ended
it, are less accommodating:
"They should kill him," said 17-year-old student and former rebel fighter Naji
Mussa. "From the beginning they should have hanged him, executed him. Why are
they treating him well?
"This isn't right. He's a criminal."
As the country, and notably the capital, remains in thrall to rival armed
groups, colliding in a chaotic and sometimes violent free-for-all, the national
government has looked on powerless to intervene. For it, Saif al-Islam's fate
is a test.
"The interim government and NTC perhaps lack the authority to be a legitimate
entity to hand him over to on the one hand, but on the other the authorities do
not have the coercive capability to take him, should they want to," Henry
Smith, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks, said.
"It is another example, albeit a symbolically significant one, of the weakness
of central government."
Smith said he would be surprised to see Saif al-Islam moved to Tripoli before
June, when Libya will hold its first election under what most hope will be a
new democratic system.
"The government is transitional, the judicial system is not really functioning,
and the NTC will be disbanded after the elections in June," Smith said. "I am
not convinced the interim government nor the NTC would want to take him anyway.
"It is another problem to deal with when they should be preoccupied with
preparing for the elections."
Gaddafi's forces did not make it into Zintan during a war in which local people
summoned the spirit of forebears who had fought Turkish and Italian occupiers
in previous centuries. The army pounded it with rockets from a distance and
some houses on the broad plateau still have walls missing from the attack.
"Lion of Zintan", the ubiquitous local slogan, is sprayed on the walls of the
modest, single-storey buildings that line the central streets. Men drive past
in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, stopping to buy freshly
Aside from truffles and hares that thrive in the mountains, local pride for
Zintanis focuses on this warlike reputation, but they reject complaints from
other Libyans that their forces are mounting a virtual occupation of the
country further afield.
"In Zintan, we are fighters. We are men of war," said one man, a 47-year-old
who gave his name as Ali and who had, he said, fought against Gaddafi. "But we
are ordinary people."
However ordinary, though, many Zintanis do believe their leading role in the
war - as highlighted by their capture of Saif al-Islam - does give them a
bigger say in Libya's future than those who, in their eyes, kept out of harm's
"When the revolution in Libya began, many jumped along, saying they would draw
up Libya's future," said Atiri, the commander of the desert patrol which
captured Gaddafi's son.
"But the people who will draw the future of Libya are those who slept in the
desert and not in 5-star hotels."
(soure: Yahoo News)