TUNIS Tunisia will extradite former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's prime minister to Libya and the handover could take place in "days or weeks", Justice Minister Noureddine Bouheiri said on Tuesday.
Should he be handed over, Al Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi would be the first senior official to be sent back for trial under Libya's transitional leadership and his extradition could establish a precedent for other countries who have given refuge to or arrested members of Gaddafi's old entourage.
Mahmoudi served as the Libyan dictator's prime minister from 2006 until he fled to neighboring Tunisia around the time that rebel fighters took the capital Tripoli in August.
A Tunisian court ruled as far back as November that Mahmoudi should be extradited.
But President Moncef al-Marzouki later said the handover would not happen until the situation in Libya had stabilized and Mahmoudi could be guaranteed a fair trial after Gaddafi himself was killed by rebels and his rotting corpse left on display.
Bouheiri said on Tuesday that decision had been made.
"The government has decided to hand over Mahmoudi and all that remains is the completion of some organizational issues," Bouheiri told Reuters in an interview.
"This could be within days or weeks or perhaps longer... Our Libyan brothers have pledged to respect Mahmoudi physically and emotionally and to give him a fair trial."
Officials from Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), in power since Gaddafi's ouster, have long called on their North African neighbor to turn over Mahmoudi for trial.
An NTC spokesman welcomed the news but said there were no firm arrangements yet in place for the move.
"We have been expecting Mahmoudi to be sent back to us because we negotiated this with the Tunisians and now they are fulfilling their promise to us," NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Harizy said. "We are glad he will come back to face trial here. When he arrives we will feed him and put him in a safe place."
Mahmoudi was for years a powerful figure inside Gaddafi's ruling elite, though he clashed repeatedly behind the scenes with Saif al-Islam, one of the fallen Libyan leader's sons who has since been captured in Libya.
In an interview via his lawyer in October, Mahmoudi told Reuters he was a technocrat and was not involved in any of the arrests, disappearances and killings carried out during Gaddafi's 42-year-rule.
The lawyer, Mabrouk Khorchid, condemned on Tuesday Tunisia's decision to extradite Mahmoudi, who was acquitted in February on charges of illegally entering the country but has remained in jail pending a decision on his fate.
"This is a shame for the Tunisian revolution... and this is a dangerous compromise," he told Reuters.
Mahmoudi is one of several members of Gaddafi's entourage who fled to adjacent countries and are wanted for trial in Libya. They include three of his sons: Saadi, who is in Niger, and Hannibal and Mohammed, who are in Algeria.
Gaddafi's former spy chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, is due to stand trial in Mauritania for illegally entering the country.
Senussi's arrest in the West African state in March started a three-way tug-of-war among Libya, France and the International Criminal Court for the extradition of one of the most feared members of Gaddafi's fallen regime.
(Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Shalchi; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)