TRIPOLI (Reuters) - While the International Criminal Court wants Libya to hand over Muammar Gaddafi’s son for trial, Tripoli remains unable to prize him out of the hands of the militia fighters who caught him last year.
That’s an obstacle the government is trying to overcome as it works to show that the country can give Saif al-Islam Gaddafi a trial that meets international standards, the man overseeing the case for the Libyan authorities said on Wednesday.
Libya’s government wants to transfer Saif al-Islam to the capital and put him on trial there rather than transfer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ahmed al-Jehani, the Libyan lawyer in charge of the Saif al-Islam case and who liaises between the Libyan government and the ICC, said that the Zintan fighters who captured and hold Saif al-Islam in a secret prison in Zintan want him tried locally.
“Some of the Zintanis want to try Saif in Zintan,” al-Jehani told Reuters on Wednesday. “Some of them say if he is handed over to Tripoli he may escape or he will be helped to escape.”
He said the Libyan government was trying to reason with the fighters by reminding them that they would be doing a disservice to Libya if they didn’t hand Saif al-Islam over.
“We are trying to convince Zintanis at this point that they didn’t fight and sacrifice all this for Zintan, they did it for Libya,” said al-Jehani. “And we have found some who are willing to listen.”
But Zintan local council spokesman Khaled al-Zintani told Reuters that some in his city - and indeed across Libya - don’t trust the weak central government because security is still a problem in the country.
“We have no problems handing him over to the government as soon as they prove to us that they have the right security to protect someone like Saif,” he told Reuters on Wednesday.
He also said that many Gaddafi supporters still lived in Tripoli and would try to help Saif al-Islam escape, making it safer to keep him where he is.
“This man has a lot of money and a lot of supporters in Tripoli,” al-Zintani said.
Saif al-Islam was caught in the desert by the Zintan fighter brigade and was flown back to Zintan, 160 kilometers (99 miles) west of Tripoli.
The ICC issued a warrant for him in June after prosecutors accused him and others of involvement in the killing of protesters during the revolt that toppled his father.
The ICC last week rejected Libya’s request to postpone handing over Saif al-Islam to face war crimes charges. The court ordered Tripoli to “comply with its obligations to enforce the warrant of arrest” and surrender him without delay. Libya appealed this decision on Tuesday.
A U.N. Security Council Resolution obliges Libya to cooperate with the court, the ICC says, and Tripoli’s failure to hand him over could result in it being reported to the Council.
Saif al-Islam faces the death penalty if found guilty by a Libyan court but only a prison term if convicted by the ICC.
Since the elder Gaddafi was killed after being captured alive by rebel fighters, competing militias have yet to lay down their arms. Western human rights organizations have accused them of carrying out numerous extra-judicial executions and other abuses, raising questions about the rule of law.
There has been a general sense of mistrust between the government and some militias as they struggle to assert their authorities. Armed former fighters have repeatedly protested and fired at government buildings when their demands are not met or met too slowly. Militias feel left out from a government some see as made up of elitists.
Al-Jehani said he last saw Saif al-Islam in early March and that he was in “good condition and receives good treatment.”
He said that Saif al-Islam asked him some legal questions during the meeting and was determined to defend himself in court.
“I told him he should get a lawyer, but he is determined to defend himself like Milosevic,” said al-Jehani, referring to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic who died while on trial in The Hague.
The Libyan lawyer said that until Saif al-Islam is handed to the government, Libyans are preparing to try Saif al-Islam and will prove to the ICC that they are ready to do so.
The Libyan government hired three international jurists including British lawyer Phillippe Sands, to advise it on how to build the capacity of the Libyan justice system.
“The Libyan government is very well aware that they only have the opportunity to try Mr Gaddafi if they are willing to show that they are able to do so,” said an official close to the Libyan legal team, who declined to be named.
The official said the international lawyers were helping to update Libyan law to make it cover international crimes.
“There has to be some legislation put in place to recognize crimes against humanity,” said the official.
Editing by Hugh Lawson