Previous attempts to bring him to trial had foundered over the insistence by Libya’s transitional government, formed soon after Saif al-Islam’s father was driven from Tripoli a year ago this week, that he face justice in the capital. The fiercely anti-Gaddafi Zintan fighters who took him prisoner refused to hand him over, fearing that he might escape with the help of friends and sympathisers in Tripoli, or that he would be treated leniently.
The breakthrough came after Libya’s first democratic elections, held last month, and a decision by ministers of the new government to compromise on the trial’s location, so long as it was conducted under the national legal code.
Some were fearful that the long delay was encouraging remaining Gaddafi loyalists to view the late dictator’s second son – the most charismatic of his surviving children, and the only one still inside Libya – as a figurehead.
The decision was also complicated by a demand from the International Criminal Court that Saif be tried at The Hague. But now Libya’s prosecutor has made clear that the ICC will play no role in the trial. The court’s relationship with Libya was poisoned after four of its personnel were detained for alleged spying during a visit to Saif. They were held for four weeks in Zintan before being released last month. Plans for the trial of Saif were revealed to The Sunday Telegraph in Tripoli on Friday by an official of the prosecutor-general’s office, Taha Naser Bara. He said: “We are sure that the evidence we have gathered is solid and it will shock and surprise the world. We believe we are capable of holding a fair trial.” Giuma Atigha, deputy head to the newly elected president of Libya’s assembly who was jailed for 10 years by the old regime, said: “It is important to hold the trial. We want to show the world what we can do.” Libya’s new rulers still fear a terrorist campaign by Gaddafi loyalists, hundreds of whom escaped the chaos of last year’s revolution to exile in Egypt and Algeria with billions of stolen dollars. They have been blamed for bomb attacks and plots in recent weeks, and the Libyan authorities believe pro-Gaddafi exiles have attempted to spring or bribe jailed friends from prison. Three Libyan judges will hear the case, which is expected to last for up to six months, with two prosecuting counsel. So far Saif has refused to appoint a Libyan defence lawyer, and unless he does so the court will appoint one for him, Mr Bara said. Dozens of witnesses from across Libya will be called to give evidence, but the charges, which have not yet been finalised, will only relate to the period from Feb 15 to Aug 20 last year when Saif had an allegedly leading role in repression. The prosecutor refused to name the witnesses because of fears for their security – assassinations are still commonplace in Libya – and he said that although most of the hearing will be in public, some evidence will be heard in secret. Evidence for the prosecution case has been gathered by two experienced lawyers since Saif’s arrest in the Sahara last November after he fled the battlefield, he said. “The prosecution case includes tape recordings, video clips, statements from people, and written documents, as well as his declarations on television stations during the revolution,” Mr Bara said. A key piece of prosecution evidence will be grainy mobile telephone footage of Saif grabbing an automatic weapon and urging his followers to fight, recorded in February as the regime prepared to send tanks into Benghazi and attempt to crush the revolution. The Sunday Telegraph understands that telephone recordings of Saif giving orders during the revolution, stolen by defectors, will also play an important role in the case against him. Former underlings captured by revolutionaries last year will also testify about his role. At the beginning of the revolution some demonstrators hoped that Saif would leave his father’s orbit and join them, because of his record as a reformer during the regime’s final years. Instead, the prosecution will argue that he played an important role throughout the uprising in directing attacks and egging on his father’s brutal supporters. Mr Bara said the prosecutor is now studying the file and will decide whether – as is hoped – there is sufficient evidence to proceed immediately to trial. A delay could be ordered if more investigation were needed, but he was emphatic that the prosecutor wants to begin the trial at the first available session of Zintan’s criminal court next month. A second and separate investigation is still under way into alleged corruption, which may lead to further charges. The details are not yet known but the investigators are expected to scrutinise Saif’s contacts with powerful figures in the West before the uprising, including Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. The decision to go ahead with a trial without international involvement in Zintan, an impoverished backwater four hours drive south of Tripoli, is likely to prove controversial and will raise questions over the credibility of the legal process – especially after Saif last month made it clear that he would prefer be tried before the International Criminal Court, fearing a show trial inside Libya. He had previously indicated that he wanted to be tried in his own country. According to an ICC defence document, Saif told the legal team from The Hague in June: “There will be no truth if witnesses are faced with possible life sentences for simply testifying in my favour. I am not afraid to die but if you execute me after such a trial you should just call it murder.” Mr Bara said that under Libyan law Saif could be tried anywhere in the country. He said: “We will not take the risk of transporting him from Zintan to Tripoli where security could be penetrated.” Holding the trial in the mountain town would also be a recognition of Zintan’s growing power in the new Libya. After resisting a siege for several months, the town’s militia played a major role in the drive into Tripoli a year ago that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, and it has now taken key positions in the new government, including that of defence minister. Officials in Tripoli were clearly bitter about the role of the ICC team which was arrested in June. Libyan officials have told The Sunday Telegraph that Saif’s ICC defence lawyer Melinda Taylor passed coded documents to the prisoner from a fugitive former intelligence chief, who was trying to set up an escape plan from his hiding place abroad. She may have been doing this unwittingly, they said. The alleged messages were part of an escape plan masterminded by Colonel Mohammed Ismael, a former right-hand man of Saif. Mr Ismael, who is the subject of an Interpol red notice, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and accused of planning the assassination of Crown Prince Abdullah. He is now near the top of the list of former regime fugitives being sought. He is believed to be based abroad, probably in Egypt, where officials think he is scheming to secure Mr Gaddafi’s release. The claims against the ICC have been embarrassing for the organisation. Libyan officials say it has apologised but not denied the spying claims. Fadi El Abdallah, a spokesman for the ICC, said it had repeatedly requested a report on the incident from the Libyans and would not comment until it received one. Fawzi Abdelali, the Libyan interior minister, said: “We found some coded messages and drawings showing places and times in Zintan. The way we look at it, there was an escape plan with people based in Libya and abroad. What they couldn’t do was pass information to Saif. We blame the ICC delegation for passing on these messages.” On her release Mrs Taylor said Libya was not capable of holding a fair trial for Saif. She did not respond to a request for an interview but has previously denied any wrongdoing. There have been few independent reports about the circumstances of Saif’s captivity. Rebels denied cutting off his fingers when he was captured, and he himself insisted that they were amputated after he was injured in a Nato airstrike. But at the time his captors were watching him carefully. Since his capture he is thought to have been held in heavily guarded private homes in Zintan, a hot and scruffy town which was neglected during his family’s rule. A researcher from Human Rights Watch who interviewed him in December found him in relatively good spirits. But now his father is dead he is probably the most hated man left in Libya today. “I wish the rebels had just killed him when they captured him,” said one elderly man in Tripoli. “That would have been an end to the Gaddafi family. I don’t know why we are wasting time on a trial. They will hang him anyway.” (The Telegraph).]]>