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Saif al-Islam, the most prominent son of lynched Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, was released in June 2017 by the militia that has held him in the north-western town of Zintan for the past five years. A month on, the terms of his release and his whereabouts are still a mystery.
The news generated mixed feelings among Libyans. Many once hoped that Saif al-Islam could reform their troubled country. For years, his image was carefully crafted. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics, despite allegations that he had plagiarized sections of his thesis on the democratization of global governance institutions. He also spoke frequently about prison reform and economic liberalization, which charmed world leaders such as Tony Blair.
Those dreams were dashed after the revolution erupted in 2011. Saif al-Islam sided with his father and vowed to crush all opposition. Most Libyans never forgave him for turning on his own people. However, it was not until his father’s regime was on the verge of collapse that he was captured by militants from the now-disbanded Abu Bakr al-Siddiq brigade.
Since then, Libya has descended into turmoil. Three competing governments have emerged, but rival militias are the ones who really control the country.
Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was just one of numerous players in the conflict. For them, Saif al-Islam was a war trophy that they could leverage to improve Zintan’s status in a post-Qaddafi political order.
The brigade eventually sided with the House of Representatives (HoR), the eastern-based government in Tobruk that was democratically elected in 2014.
The HoR refuses to recognize the General National Salvation (GNS) or the Presidential Council. The former has little relevance whereas the latter was created to preside over the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was created under the terms of the United Nations-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Under this agreement, the HoR was supposed to serve as the GNA’s legislative branch.
To further complicate matters, Saif al-Islam was reportedly released in July 2016, following an amnesty for political prisoners issued by the HoR in 2015. However, these reports were later dismissed. If he was, in fact, released in June 2017, he has few places he could go.
There is a warrant for his execution if he is captured by militias who are loyal to one of the two competing governments in the capital Tripoli, the General National Congress and the GNA. Fleeing Libya is also unwise since he could be handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Last year 2016, one of Saif al-Islam’s regular visitors told al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the primary obstacle for his release was his safety. This is not surprising since militants have systematically targeted Qaddafi-era civil servants, military officers and politicians. More importantly, Saif al-Islam could be more useful to figures in the HoR if he is kept alive.
Other sources close to Saif al-Islam told Mustafa Fetouri, an academic and award-winning journalist, that he is trying to mobilize support among tribal leaders and fighters loyal to his father. Many of them perceive him as Libya’s ‘saviour’. He is particularly popular among the Warfallah tribe in the western town of Bani Walid, where he hid in the dying days of the revolution before fleeing south.
John Pearson, a foreign correspondent for the Emirati newspaper The National, suggests that General Hiftar’s self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA), which is aligned with the HoR, could benefit from forming an alliance with tribal militias who support Saif al-Islam. Such an alliance could pose a real threat to Islamist militants controlling the capital and other major cities. In this regard, Fetouri argues that Saif al-Islam’s release is a small step towards reconciliation in Libya.
Other experts disagree. Fathi Fadli, a professor at the University of Tripoli, told al-Jazeera that the amnesty issued by the HoR has no legitimacy. He argued that Saif al-Islam’s fate should be decided by a court in Tripoli rather than by the political interests of a rival government.
Yet the courts appear to have as much legitimacy as the amnesty. Like all institutions in the capital, the courts are subject to the influence of militias who control them. That much was clear after Saif al-Islam was sentenced to death in absentia in July 2015. Many Libyans cheered the verdict, but human rights groups criticized the trial for failing to meet international standards.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the trial, which convicted a total of 32 Qaddafi-era officials, failed to provide meaningful legal representation for the defendants. Defendants were also prohibited from questioning witness’ testimonies in court. It did not help that Saif al-Islam only participated in four of the 25 hearings via a closed-circuit video link that was organized by the authorities in Tripoli.
“The reported release of Qaddafi based on a flawed amnesty law does not change the fact that he is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity,” said Richard Dicker, HRW’s international director. “The Zintan brigade, which alleges that it released him, should urgently disclose his whereabouts.”
Such a disclosure is unlikely to be made any time soon. Instead, Saif al-Islam’s release merely adds another dimension to a conflict that has been shaped by fragmented governance and shifting alliances. Margaret Fitzgerald, a journalist and Libya expert, described the situation best when she said that Libya “doesn’t have politics. It has militia politics.” Right now, Qaddafi loyalists may be urging Saif al-Islam to get involved.