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Libya to try Gadhafi son Saif al Islam, despite international concerns

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Friday, August 24, 2012, at 5:02 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, August 24, 2012, at 7:12 p.m.

— Libya’s prosecutor general has announced that the central government and the militia that’s holding Moammar Gadhafi’s son Saif al Islam have agreed to try him in Zintan, 90 miles south of Tripoli, despite the International Criminal Court’s assertion that it will be impossible for him to receive a fair trial in the country.

The announcement of the agreement Thursday sets the stage for a dramatic and certainly controversial show trial of the person who’s most likely to serve as the surrogate for anger toward his father, who was killed 10 months ago, shortly after he was captured.

The trial also could spur rising violence by Gadhafi loyalists. Analysts say Saif Gadhafi probably will be executed if he’s found guilty. Gadhafi loyalists have warned that they’ll take revenge should any harm come to Saif.

Those threats came after a major clash Wednesday night and Thursday in Tarhouna, 50 miles southeast of Tripoli, between Libyan security forces and a pro-Gadhafi militia that’s suspected of involvement in a string of recent car bombings in the capital. One person was confirmed killed and an unspecified number of people wounded during the clash.

After the confrontation, security forces confiscated 100 tanks and 30 anti-aircraft rockets from Tarhouna’s Brigade of the Faithful militia, the same group responsible for shutting down Tripoli’s Mitiga airport in June as it demanded the release of its leader, Col. Abu Ajila al Habshi.

On Thursday the Libyan prosecutor general’s office announced that the decision to try Saif next month followed negotiations with senior members of the Zintan militia in whose custody he’s been since last November.

"A committee from the prosecutor general’s office has completed its investigation into the crimes committed by Saif al Islam from the start of the revolution on February 15 (2011) and has prepared the charge sheet," spokesman Taha Nasser Baara said.

The announcement came after a series of contradictory statements on the subject, an indication that a consensus had been difficult to reach.

The charges against Saif include urging supporters to kill demonstrators and revolutionaries during last year’s uprising. Evidence includes tape recordings, video clips, witness statements and documentation, as well as comments he made on TV during the revolution.

The trial, expected to last up to six months, will be heard by three Libyan judges on evidence gathered by several lawyers. Some of the proceedings will be open to the public and the rest in secret. Prosecution witnesses haven’t been named for fear of assassinations, which are now rife in Libya, particularly in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the heart of the uprising. If Saif is found guilty and sentenced to death, he will be hanged.

The Zintan militia captured the former heir apparent, the second oldest son of Moammar Gadhafi, as he fled across the desert last November in an attempt to escape from Libya.

Despite attempts by the Libyan authorities to have Saif handed over so that he could stand trial in Tripoli, the militia had refused to release its captive, fearing that sympathizers in the capital would help him escape. But his capture also proved to be an asset in forcing concessions from the former ruling National Transitional Council and the new General National Congress, which took over as Libya’s government after national elections in early July.

The gunmen from Zintan gained international notoriety when they “arrested” members of Saif Gadhafi’s International Criminal Court defense team who’d traveled to Zintan to meet with him. They were released three weeks later after high-level international intervention.

On Thursday, as government forces battled the pro-Gadhafi militia in Tarhouna, the nascent and relatively weak security forces were sent to the town of Zlitan, 100 miles east of Tripoli, to restore order after three people were killed during militia clashes involving two tribes, one of them composed of Gadhafi supporters.

The Libyan authorities have acknowledged that security is one of the biggest obstacles the country faces as it tries to recover from the bitter and bloody civil war. They also seem uncertain how to deal with it. On Thursday reporters were invited to attend a government meeting in Tripoli that was to address security concerns. But when the journalists arrived, they were told they couldn’t attend because of the “sensitive” nature of the issues discussed, and some reporters were temporarily detained when they tried to argue their case.

Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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