Saif Gaddafi: an ICC trial could be Libya's truth and reconciliation moment

He’d previously been “caught” in Tripoli months ago and was supposed to have been a guest (or refugee) in Niger for weeks, but Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s capture in Libya on Saturday has now ended this run of fanciful stories.

One of the oddest stories, perhaps, was that the office here at Amnesty had a tweet purporting to be from Saif a few weeks back, saying it was right that human rights abuses by the National Transitional Council were being exposed by Amnesty. Thanks for that.

So, Colonel Gaddafi’s best-known son and heir presumptive, wanted by the International Criminal Court and possibly the world’s most famous on-the-run suspect, has been caught. It’s good news. But what next?

The photo of a surprised-looking Saif in traditional Arab robes was the iconic image of the weekend, but the serious business of what to do with him is now underway.

It’s quickly become a source of international wrangling. The ICC chief prosecutor was straight on a plane to Tripoli and ICC spokesman Fadi el-Abdallah has been clear that in the ICC’s view the Libyan authorities are legally obliged to transfer Saif to its jurisdiction. This is definitely the preferred outcome.

An ICC-administered trial would be seen to be fair by the vast majority of observers (no “victors’ justice”). If it is held in Libya – with adequate witness protection etc – it must clearly rule out the death penalty and be run to the highest international standards. Instead, if we have the unseemly spectacle of a Saddam Hussein-style trial – potentially followed by a squalid hole-in-the-wall execution – then the entire justice system in Libya effectively becomes degraded. Philippe Sands takes us through some of the options for trials in this comment piece. His point is that under UN Resolution 1970 the Libyan authorities have a responsibility to deal with the ICC on this case, and in the case of Libya's former head of intelligence Abdullah al-Sanussi, Muammar Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, also captured at the weekend.

As I’ve said before on this blog, Gaddafi loyalists – or perceived loyalists – have already been on the receiving end of some very rough justice in recent months. And after the apparent lynching of Gaddafi and his fifth son Mutassim, a properly-managed trial for Saif would be a chance to rebalance things somewhat. 

The people of Libya have been through 40-plus years of dictatorship, followed by war and huge uncertainty. It’s surely only right that they get to see a key figure from this period stand trial and answer the charges against him. This could be Libya’s own “truth and reconciliation” process.

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