July 2, 2012 / 11:37 AM / 7 years ago

ICC chief in Libya as staff members set to be freed

TRIPOLI, July 2 (Reuters) - The head of the International Criminal Court arrived in Libya ahead of the expected release later on Monday of four staff members, whose detention since early June plunged the North African state into its biggest diplomatic controversy so far.

Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were detained in the town of Zintan and accused of smuggling documents and hidden recording devices to Muammar Gaddafi’s captured son Saif al-Islam. Two male ICC staff who were travelling with Taylor and Assaf have stayed with them.

Taylor had been sent to Libya to represent Saif al-Islam, whom the ICC wants extradited to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed during the uprising that toppled his father last year. Libya has so far refused to extradite Saif al-Islam, saying it would prefer to try him in its own courts.

The Hague-based court, U.N. Security Council, the head of NATO and human rights groups have urged Libya to free the ICC delegates in what has become its most serious diplomatic row since last year’s uprising ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

Judicial experts say Saif al-Islam is unlikely to get a fair trial in Libya, where the arrests of the ICC officials have only served to highlight the challenges the interim government faces in imposing its authority on the myriad militias who helped topple Gaddafi and are now vying for power.

The western mountain town of Zintan is effectively outside the control of the central government. It is run by a former rebel brigade that captured Saif al-Islam in November and has held him since, giving it leverage in its dealings with Tripoli.

ICC President Sang-Hyun Song was greeted at Tripoli’s international airport by Libya’s justice minister, deputy foreign minister and other officials but made no comment before being whisked away in an official convoy.

The ICC said on Sunday it expected its four staff members to be freed on Monday. An official at the Libyan prosecutor general’s office told Reuters Song was coming to “offer an apology for the acts their team committed”.

Late last month, the ICC expressed regret to Libyan authorities in what seemed to come close to an apology designed to secure the release of its employees. (Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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