Saif al-Islam Gadhafi after his capture by a Libyan militia in Nov. 2011. Two years later he's still held in the desert as courts contest right to try him. Photo: Reuters/Ammar El-Darwish.
Saif al Islam Gadhafi – remember him? – has had so many media lives it’s hard to believe he could drop out of sight with nary a trace of his old celebrity.
But two years this month after the overthrow and killing of his father, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the onetime playboy, regime front man and heir apparent is living in seclusion in a blue prison uniform somewhere in the desert southwest of Tripoli, guarded by heavily armed tribesmen and largely forgotten by the world.
Not so the courts. Even in obscurity he’s a centre of controversy. Charged with heinous crimes by his own government as well as the International Criminal Court at The Hague, he was the subject of a lengthy legal battle for jurisdiction to try him.
The ICC ruled that Libya failed the legal challenge for keeping him in his home country because he could not be guaranteed a fair trial there, and on Thursday ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the UN that Libya should “surrender Saif al-Islam Gadhafi to the Court without further delay.”
But Libya is also having little luck in trying Gadhafi, who became a hate figure during the 2011 uprising, broadcasting a furious speech that “we will fight to the last man and woman and bullet.” After horrific attacks on civilians mounted, he was taken at his word and charged as a co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity.
Although Tripoli ignored the ICC ruling, and moved to trial, the militia that captured him refused to hand him over, and instead took him to their own tribal court in Zintan. There he faces only the charge of giving “restricted information” to an ICC lawyer. .
Unsurprisingly, Gadhafi told the Zintan judge he preferred to stay there, rather than be moved to Tripoli to face charges that could lead to a death sentence. And, said Reuters, the Zintan fighters who are guarding him are aligned with the tribes that were once his father’s power base: some suspect they are protecting rather than bringing him to justice.
Still, rural life can’t be easy for a man who was known as a high-rolling playboy, London-educated reformer, friend of former British PM Tony Blair and welcome guest at glittering dinner parties. Now he’s seeking only one starring role: Survivor.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.