What next for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi?

What next for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi?
7 min read
23 Jun, 2017
Comment: Was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi really released recently? If so, what influence might he have on Libya's future? asks Guma ElGamaty.
The ICC has demanded he is arrested and handed over to them [AFP]

Who is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi?

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (45-years-old) is the eldest son of Muammar Gaddafi from his second wife, and came to prominence in Libyan politics some 15 years ago, when he began talking publicly about the need for economic reforms.

He highlighted some of the human rights violations being perpetrated by his father's regime, and was soon tipped as the heir in waiting and most likely successor to his father's rule in Libya.

Once the Libyan popular uprising erupted in February 2011, some close friends and aides of Saif al-Islam hoped that he would step in, to prevent his father's brutal and bloody reaction to the peaceful demonstrations, thus opening a national dialogue to accommodate the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.

Instead, the opposite occurred with Saif reacting in a hawkish and uncompromising manner just like his father: threatening and working hard to crush the uprising by all means possible. He publicly stated that his father's regime would "fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet".

On 27 June 2011, The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and wanted him to stand trial in The Hague for "crimes against humanity"; in particular, this referred to crimes of torture and killing of civilians since the start of the uprising in February 2011.

Eventually, the Gaddafi regime was brought down on 20 August 2011 when the capital Tripoli (with it being the last stronghold) was "liberated" and Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam escaped towards the cities of Bani Walid and Sirte.

In less than a year, he had gone from a reformer and a potential successor to a prisoner within his own country

On 20 October 2011, Gaddafi was found and killed in Sirte and on 19 November 2011 Saif al-Islam was captured in the south west of the country as he was trying to flee Libya towards Niger. He was transferred to the city of Zintan, some 200 km south west of Tripoli where he was held by a local militia.

In less than a year, he had gone from a reformer and a potential successor to a prisoner within his own country.

Trial in absentia by a Libyan court

While he was held in Zintan, Saif al-Islam was put on trial in absentia by a Libyan court in Tripoli, and in July 2015 he was sentenced to death along with eight other senior Gaddafi regime figures. The ICC still demanded his handover, not accepting the trial in Tripoli as adequate or an alternative to its own trial which it believed still needed to take place.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is part of a dark, tyrannical and oppressive past in Libya

Over the last two years, while being held in Zintan, rumours circulated that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi had been released, based on an amnesty law decreed by the House Of Representatives (HOR) - based in Tobruk - but none of these rumours turned out to be true.

So what makes the recent announcement of his release on 11 June by the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigade - the local militia that was holding him in Zintan - any different?

April 2014, 37 former Libyan regime officials, including Muammar 
Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi were put on trial [AFP]

The fact is, until now there hasn't been any concrete evidence, such as videos or images confirming his release.

His British lawyer, Karim Khan QC, was unable to confirm or deny the reports of his client's release, but confirmed that he was in regular contact with him, and last met with him in Zintan in the autumn.

Lending credibility to reports of his release, one joint statement, signed by both the Military and Municipal councils of Zintan, strongly condemned the release by the local militia. The statement read that the move had "nothing to do with the legal procedures, but is collusion and betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and the military institution they claim to belong to". 

A Libyan lawyer, Khaled al-Zaidi, who represents Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi in Libya has also stated that his client was released, adding that "Saif was headed to another Libyan city that he could not name for security reasons".

Zaidi went on to say that his client will deliver a public statement soon which will address the Libyan people and call for national reconciliation in the country.

In the absence of any concrete video or images of Saif al-Islam being a free man outside Zintan, we cannot say definitively that he was released on 11 June.

However, given the quick and strong reaction from the highly influential military and municipal councils of Zintan, there is a strong probability that he was released possibly few days or weeks before the announcement date so as to give him time to settle in a safe place.

Where is he now?

Assuming that he has been freed, it is unlikely that Saif al-Islam will be roaming the vast and unsafe south of Libya as has been rumoured.

The legal cloud hanging over Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi will mean that he is most certainly restricted from playing any official political role

It was only when he left his safe haven of the city of Bani Walid, some 200km south east of Tripoli, and wandered into the south of Libya back in 2011, that he was captured. It is therefore unlikely that he will repeat the same costly mistake; it is also unlikely that he went to the east of the country, where Haftar has total military and security control.

There is no mutual trust between the two, with Haftar possibly seeing Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as a potential competitor to his own power ambitions. He is also not likely to have left Libya to another country, for fear of the arrest warrant that would be activated by the ICC against him once he is located outside Libya.

The most likely scenario is that he has moved once again into Bani Walid, where there are a vast number of supporters whom have remained loyal to his father's regime, and can be trusted with his safety.

Legal constraints to a political role

The legal cloud hanging over Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi will mean that he is most certainly restricted from playing any official political role, unless his sentence in Libya is reversed, he is acquitted by the courts, and the ICC drop their charges against him.

  Read more: Is the tide turning against Haftar in Libya?

After hearing of his release, the ICC has made an additional demand that he be arrested and handed over to them. The Hague-based ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said that her office is still trying to verify the reported release, and called on Libya and other states to arrest and surrender him.

She stated that "Libya is obliged to immediately arrest and surrender Mr Gaddafi to the ICC, regardless of any purported amnesty law in Libya,".

Clash with Haftar

General Haftar, supported by many countries including the UAE and Egypt, is already in full control of the east of Libya and has been attempting to extend his control to the south and further edge closer towards the capital Tripoli in the west.

Haftar has a clear plan to ultimately take over and establish himself as the strong military ruler who can bring stability to Libya, emulating his friend and staunch backer: Sisi of Egypt.

Haftar will not tolerate Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appearing on the political arena and attempting to rally support

Haftar will not tolerate Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appearing on the political arena and attempting to rally support from the many tribes and segments of Libyan society who are still loyal to his father's regime.

A deep mistrust and clash of agendas between the two is inevitable with neither of them having a chance of succeeding unless the other is politically eliminated. 

Making an appearance soon

It is likely that Saif al-Islam will make a recorded televised statement soon.

He may try to send out a populist message stressing the need for reconciliation, the end of violence and building of unity amongst the Libyan people.

However, were this to happen, his image would remain far from that of a national saviour, or popular figure capable of rallying Libyans around him, and helping him rise to the political leadership of Libya.

For one, he still carries the damaging legacy of his father's regime, including the violence and bloodshed that occurred in suppressing the 2011 revolution.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is part of a dark, tyrannical and oppressive past in Libya and therefore cannot become part of shaping a free, democratic and prosperous future that all Libyans aspire to live by.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab