ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - A delegation from the International Criminal Court on Tuesday visited their colleagues being held in Libya over allegations they had smuggled documents to Muammar Gaddafi’s detained son.
The delegation had earlier been prevented from entering Zintan by a local militia which closed roads into the town because of tribal clashes in the area.
Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were detained last week while visiting Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in Zintan on allegations they had smuggled documents to him from his supporters. Two male colleagues were with them.
Human rights groups, the court in The Hague, and the Australian government have all demanded that they be released immediately, but Libyan prosecutors say Taylor and Assaf will be held for at least 45 days while they are investigated.
“The delegation as well as ambassadors for their (the detained ICC staff) countries visited them,” said Ahmed al-Gehani, a Libyan lawyer who is in charge of the Saif al-Islam case and liaises between the government and the ICC.
“They are well, they are in a guesthouse, not in a prison. They have food, water, and are being treated well.”
Earlier on Tuesday, in scenes that summed up the chaos and instability in Libya since a revolt last year ousted and killed Gaddafi, when the delegation arrived at a checkpoint outside Zintan, militiamen told them no one was being allowed in because of clashes with a rival tribe nearby.
The 7-vehicle convoy parked near the checkpoint but waited to get into Zintan, even though the visit had been approved by authorities in the capital, Tripoli.
The incident underscored the problem complicating negotiations over the ICC staff: Zintan is effectively outside the control of the central government.
Instead, it is the brigade in Zintan, which captured Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam in November and has since refused to transfer him to the capital, which is, de facto, in charge.
Militiamen at the checkpoint said their commanders in the Zintan military council had given orders to close the road after fighting broke out between Zintan militias and members of the El-Mashasha tribe.
The clashes were happening about 50 km (30 miles) south of Zintan, well away from the route being used by the ICC delegation.
Even before the ICC staff were detained, the court was involved in a tug of war with the Libyan authorities over where Saif al-Islam should stand trial.
He is wanted by the ICC for crimes during the uprising that ended his father’s 42-year rule last year. Libya’s new rulers insist he should be tried in his home country.
An ICC team, including Taylor and Assaf, had been meeting him in Zintan under an arrangement with the Libyan authorities for him to have access to ICC-appointed defense lawyers.
Officials in Zintan said that during the meeting the pair were caught passing documents to Saif al-Islam from his fugitive right-hand man Mohammed Ismail, and that afterwards they were found to be carrying “spying and recording” equipment.
In The Hague, an ICC spokesman repeated the ICC’s stance that the detention of its staff was illegal because they have immunity from prosecution.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, told Reuters on Monday evening that the Zintan authorities said they had the right to investigate the case against the ICC pair. But he said the allegations against them surprised him.
“It’s not what we would expect from the court...from the defense,” the prosecutor said.
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Writing by Christian Lowe