London – Three years and eight months after he was captured trying to flee the country in the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s revolution, Muammar Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, has been sentenced to death after being convicted of committing war crimes.
But Libya has become a fractured state since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, following Nato intervention, and it remains uncertain whether the man who became the uncompromising public face of his father’s regime during the vicious conflict will actually face the firing squad.
Saif al-Islam is being held in the western city of Zintan, where the local administration and militia says the Islamist Libya Dawn government based in Tripoli – where his trial was held in absentia – is illegitimate and has refused to hand over the prisoner.
The case against Saif al-Islam was part of a wider prosecution with senior members of the former regime facing charges. Three senior figures, including former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, were also sentenced to death yesterday. Some 28 defendants appeared in court, dressed in blue prison uniforms, sitting in a cage.
The impartiality and competence of the Tripoli court have been questioned by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and human rights groups. The ICC had indicted Saif al-Islam for crimes against humanity but had refused, in the past, a demand from Libya’s post-revolutionary government for him to be tried in the country.
The trial started in March last year with Saif al-Islam charged with recruiting mercenaries, air strikes on civilians, shooting of unarmed demonstrators, incitement to murder and rape. He initially gave evidence by videolink, but that ended last May.
Since then, following disputed elections, Libya has split into two warring governments, the one in Tobruk supported by a former general, Khalifa Haftar. Parallel conflicts have erupted between rival militias and the country has become a conduit for migrants smuggled into Europe. Isis has arrived with Colonel Gaddafi’s former home town, Sirte, now its main base.
Meanwhile, the Zintan militia, which had controlled Tripoli airport, were driven out of the capital by an alliance of Libya Dawn and forces including one from the port city of Misrata. The lawyer appointed to defend Saif al-Islam by the ICC, John Jones, said: “It’s a show trial which is effectively being run by the Libya Dawn militia. The prosecutors are relying on confessions from defendants extracted by torture.” Saif al-Islam remained unaware of the evidence against him for long periods, claimed Mr Jones, because the video-link had kept failing.
The UN human rights office said it was “ deeply disturbed” by the sentences; the campaign group, Human Rights Watch, stressed that justice for victims of the Gaddafi regime can “ only be delivered through fair and transparent proceedings.”
The fate of Col Gaddafi’s son, however, is likely to be decided by the country’s turbulent politics rather than the law. The Zintanis, it is widely expected, will hold on to him as a bargaining chip.