Where in the world is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi? Rumours about his whereabouts and the circumstances he faces have been swirling for weeks. Saif, the former heir-apparent to his father’s rule over Libya, faces an indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for inciting violence during the 2011 Libyan civil war. But he hasn’t been heard from in months. Until last week — well, sort of. Last month, lawyers purporting to represent Saif held a press conference in The Hague demanding that the ICC drop its case against their client. They insisted that Saif couldn’t be put on trial at the Court because he had already been prosecuted — and sentenced to death — in a Libyan court; the principle of double jeopardy, they argued, precluded another trial at the ICC. But there’s a glitch: it remains unclear that the lawyers, which include highly respected defence counsel at the ICC, Karim Khan, have spoken with Saif, have met him, or have power of attorney to represent Saif before the Court. But then, yesterday, a bombshell report was published in France 24 suggesting that Saif has been granted freedom for the last three months:
The former Libyan dictator’s second son “was given his liberty on April 12, 2016”, lawyer Karim Khan said Wednesday, adding that Saif al-Islam was released under an amnesty previously declared by the Tobruk parlement, the internationally recognised authority that governed part of Libya before the national unity government of Fayez al-Sarraj took over in March. According to the lawyer, this release was made “in accordance with (Libyan) law”.
Khan declined to say whether he had spoken to his client, saying only that he “is well and safe and in Libya”.
Marcel Ceccaldi, another lawyer claiming to represent Saif with Khan, has claimed to have spoken with Saif (although it’s not clear when) and insists he is not in detention in Zintan. In another twist to this curious story, Ceccaldi is close with far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. He claims that Saif is out of prison. Ceccaldi added that Saif has told him he wants to “contribute to the political unification of Libya” and the “fight against terrorism” in Libya.
If true, this would be an astounding development. Not only would this mean that Saif has been “free” for three months but that he — unlike the vast majority of other senior Gaddafi loyalists — has been issued an amnesty. It would also show curious cooperation between the powerful Zintani militia and a government which it doesn’t recognize.
It also seems difficult to fathom that no one on the ground, i.e. in Libya itself, has been willing to report on his freedom or verify Saif’s status for this entire period of time. Indeed, if reports are true, for three months, every actor – the militia, the government, international actors on the ground, Saif’s apparent legal team, and Saif himself – has had an incentive to keep Saif’s circumstances quiet. And, in this scenario, it was an ICC lawyer who may or may not be in contact with Saif, who broke the news – and a three month old secret – to the world.
Some are now reporting this veil of silence is lifting. Stephen has said (on Twitter) that there may be a press conference in Tripoli as early as this evening regarding Saif’s situation. While it’s doubtful that Saif would be present, a press conference in Tripoli would be astounding in its own right.
Now, however, BBC has reported that senior Zintani officials have denied that Saif is free and questioned the motives of Khan in saying he was liberated:
This is a rumour that has been plaguing Zintan for months. This will not be the last time, I do not understand the motive of this lawyer.
Reuters has also reported that a military official in Zintan has denied Saif is free: “We deny that Saif Islam has been released,” the source said.
Still, there may not be much difference between saying that Saif has not been “released” and what exactly, others mean by Saif’s “liberty”. It seems impossible that Saif is able to do what he wants or that he is able to move freely. He is very likely still in Zintan. Had he moved anywhere else and managed to avoid being killed, he would have been recognized and his movements surely reported. Instead, the Zintani militia, which has held Saif in its custody since November 2011, has likely granted Saif some form of limited freedom. Perhaps he has a private home from which he can speak to members of his family; perhaps he can move around Zintan and its outskirts (although you’d think someone, in three months, would snap a cellphone pic if he was out-and-about); perhaps he can entertain some guests and has started a romantic relationship (Mary Fitzerald has tweeted that “in April a Zintani colonel claimed… [Saif] was more under ‘house arrest’ & had married, had child.” But much more “freedom” than that still makes little sense.
While Saif may very well be on good terms with the militia that caught him the wake of the civil war, it would defy reason for them to simply set him free. As Mohamed Eljarh, a trusted source on Libyan politics, has said that it may be that Saif “has been under their protection more than under their arrest.” But having control over Saif has long been a very important point of leverage for those who have custody over him. Sure, Saif — who some believe may still have access to extraordinary wealth beyond Libya’s borders — could have paid the Zintani militia off for some form of limited freedom. But it is hard, nigh impossible, to imagine that they’d just let him walk — and that, if they did, he’d stick around, living in obscurity for months on end.
There are additional reasons to be doubtful of the idea that Saif’s is a free man. Mattia Toaldo, a Libyan analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, made an important observation on Saif alleged liberation: “If he were really free, then this would shake things up in Libya as [Gaddafi] loyalists would now have a recognised leader also free to travel in parts of the country.” Saif’s freedom would surely send shockwaves across the still-precarious political landscape in Libya. The big question — and one for which there has never been a clear answer, is: what would it take for the Zintani militia to fully release Saif? And what is their end game in having ICC lawyers report that he’s free?
There remain those “fans” out there, including in the West, who insist that Saif has done nothing wrong and that he can be a unifying force for Libya. This seems fanciful, at best. Saif is reviled by many Libyans who won’t soon forget how he clung by his father’s side and infamously waved his fingers at those who rose up against the regime. It seems improbable that Saif would be safe as a free citizen in Libya, let alone as a high-profile public figure. His case at the ICC may not be strong, but the decisions he took during the civil war surely ended any possibility of him emerging as a peaceful and moderate successor to Muammar Gaddafi.
The weakness of Saif’s case at the ICC, however, does raise on important question. Why are the lawyers claiming to represent him fighting to have his case at ICC dismissed? If the evidence against Saif is, as many believe, weak, and if any sentence he received in the case of an improbable conviction would be minimal, why not go the ICC route and bet on him actually emerging as a free man?
For the moment, there are more questions than answers.