Christian Caryl

Zintan Versus the World

Why a small town in Libya refuses to give up custody of the revolution’s most high-profile prisoner.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

ZINTAN, Libya — The Nafusa Mountains rise dramatically from the rocky wastes of the northern Sahara. The road, hitherto arrow-straight, begins to twist as it gains altitude, and you find yourself looking down from the window of your car into canyons dotted with tamarisk and date palms. Finally you reach the edge of the plateau, and from there it’s just a few minutes into the center of Zintan, pop. 40,000.

Zintan, with its whitewashed farmhouses and quiet mosques, is not the kind of the place that usually stands at the center of global controversies. But Libya’s revolution has changed all that. When the 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began, Zintanis quickly joined in. The town’s men formed a powerful militia that proved its mettle in many a far-flung battle with government soldiers. "We love the Sahara," Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri told me. "We are desert people."

I had come to Zintan to hear Atiri’s take on the issue that has placed his town in an unlikely international spotlight. Atiri still vividly remembers the day when he and his men made their mark on the history of their country. It was the fall of 2011, a month after the ignominious death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Atiri was commanding a Zintani militia unit patrolling a remote region along the country’s southern border with Niger. When his unit received a tip that a high-ranking member of the old regime was trying to escape across the border, Atiri set up a nighttime ambush on a smuggler’s road. Sure enough, his fighters soon surprised two cars that quickly became mired in the dunes. They captured the occupants, one of whom, Atiri noticed, was trying to hide his face.

The reason soon became apparent: He was Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the best-known of the Libyan dictator’s seven sons. As soon as he realized that the jig was up, Saif made an odd request: "The first thing he asked was, ‘Kill me. Please kill me,’" Atiri recalls. "I told him that because we caught him unarmed, we weren’t going to kill him." Islamic law, Atiri says, didn’t allow his men to take vengeance on a defenseless captive.

Before the revolution, Saif, who liked to boast about his degree from the London School of Economics, served as the regime’s open-minded face to the outside world, negotiating with the Americans about compensation to victims of terrorism and talking of the need for reform. But as soon as the uprising began, the cosmopolitan veneer quickly fell away, and the dictator’s son distinguished himself with a number of notably bloodthirsty speeches aimed at the opponents of his father’s regime.

Since his capture in that moonlit ambush in the Sahara, Saif has remained in the custody of the Zintanis, who are now holding him in a jail at an undisclosed location in the city. The Zintanis have refused to hand him over to anyone else, including the central government in Tripoli — and it is their insistence on this point that has sparked their feud with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Hague-based international tribunal created in 2002 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC is designed to exercise jurisdiction in situations where countries are unable to ensure proper judicial procedures on their own. Libya would certainly seem to fit the bill, given the continuing weakness of its central government, the lack of security, and the problems faced by the country’s post-revolutionary judicial system. So the court has ruled that Libya should hand Saif over to ensure that he can face a fair trial. (The ICC reiterated its views in a finding issued in May.)

But the Zintanis aren’t buying it — and they’ve shown little willingness to compromise. Last year, when Saif’s ICC-appointed Australian defense lawyer, Melinda Taylor, showed up to consult with her client, the Zintanis ended up detaining her and three of her colleagues for almost a month. Taylor shared the details of her ordeal with the Australian press and other media. The Zintanis had a somewhat harder time getting their version of events out to the world.

But if you want it, Atiri is the man to ask. Today, his militia is in charge of the prison where Saif is being held, effectively making him Saif’s jailer-in-chief. Atiri says that the position of the Zintanis is simple: They want to see Saif get a fair trial, but they don’t think that can happen in Tripoli. They’re convinced that it’s possible in Zintan (though they don’t have much to say about the details of how it would take place).

The problem, the Zintanis argue, is that the central government in the capital is paralyzed, corrupt, and riven by faction. In Atiri’s telling, the post-revolutionary government still contains many veterans of the old regime who have an interest in preventing full disclosure: "When you give Saif al-Islam a trial, there are many people in the Libyan government and the GNC [the General National Council, the interim legislature] who would be incriminated by the things he says," says Atiri. "Saif will get a fair trial in Zintan. There are no political parties fighting over policy here." Atiri also notes that his town will be happy to allow Saif to be tried under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice — just not in Tripoli. And since the ministry hasn’t shown any indication to move ahead with a trial in their town, the Zintanis are fully prepared to do it themselves.

Moreover, he argues, Zintan’s security situation is strictly under control. The local government and its security force enjoy the full support of the close-knit community, and the city has been almost entirely free of violent incidents since the end of the revolution. Tripoli, by contrast, remains under the sway of dozens of competing militias, each of which sees its presence in the capital as guaranteeing its interests at the national level.

Politicians in Tripoli predictably reject the insinuation that they aren’t in a position to bring Saif to justice. "I think these are completely outrageous excuses," says Mohamed Ali Abdullah, head of National Front Party and a leading member of the GNC, responding to the claims made by the Zintanis. He cites the recent verdicts in the case of two top Qaddafi-era officials issued by a government court in the city of Misrata as "a good step in the right direction." (It should be noted that the death sentences issued by the court were criticized by Amnesty International, which objects to executions of members of the old regime as a form of revenge for their past crimes.) 

As for the International Criminal Court, the Zintanis told me that Libyans should be the ones to try those who committed the crimes of the Qaddafi regime. "In Qaddafi’s time there was no free justice," says Mohamed Al-Wakwak, the head of Zintan’s municipal government. "That’s why we had the revolution — to ensure justice for Libya. It’s not a personal thing [in the case of Saif]. It’s about what he did, not who he was." As for Melinda Taylor, the ICC-appointed defense lawyer, the Zintanis told me that they imprisoned her because she attempted to help Saif communicate with Qaddafi sympathizers outside of the country — behavior they deem "unprofessional" for a lawyer of the ICC. The ICC ultimately apologized for the incident, promising to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by Taylor or the others. (The Zintanis brought Saif into court earlier this year to charge him with attempted escape, an accusation based on the Taylor incident. The photo above shows Saif in the Zintan courtroom in May.)

The Zintanis are quick to insist that they’re happy to provide access to Saif’s defense lawyers (or, at least, the public defenders appointed to his case in Tripoli). They also say that they’re taking care to ensure humane living conditions for their illustrious prisoner — including TV, plenty of reading material, and air conditioning. They do note, however, that he is being held in isolation from other prisoners, though they refuse to elaborate on the details for security reasons. (The precise location or nature of his jail in Zintan remains a secret.)

And so the stalemate continues. For the time being, Saif remains the only Qaddafi-era notable who is not in the custody of the central government, making his case not only a test of Libya’s ability to deal with its complicated past, but also an illustration of the tortured relations between Libya’s fractious regions and its beleaguered capital. (Saif is also the only one of his siblings to have been detained. Three of them were killed during the revolution, while the other four managed to escape the country and are now living in exile.) "The big issue is that he’s not under the control of the government," says Alex Whiting, a former ICC official now teaching at Harvard Law School. "That’s the thing that’s so odd about the Saif case. If that could be solved, it would be a big win-win for everybody — the Libyan government, Libyan people, the ICC, international community, and the international criminal justice project. If the government gets its hands on the guy and does a reasonably fair trial of him, that would be an incredible victory. Nobody loses."

The problem, as Whiting and many others acknowledge, is that the government in Tripoli probably doesn’t have the will (or the troops) to go in and take Saif away from his captors. Men who’ve spent their lives eking a living from the Sahara are not the kind to give up easily.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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