Peripeteia for Saif Gaddafi

Clair Maleney analyses the implications for Libya of the recent release of Gaddafi’s son.

Peripeteia. A literary term referring to a character’s sudden reversal of fortunes; a word which also epitomizes the release of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, from prison on the 9th of June 2017. This most recent installment in Mr. Gaddafi’s story is just one of many intriguing twists, turns, and peripeteias which have occurred since his arrest after the 2011 Arab Spring in Libya.

Before the uprising Mr. Gaddafi enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, with many influential friends in high places. He was known for his failed career as a football star, his luxurious London apartment, and his overall playboy lifestyle. His social circle was surprising considering his father’s history of strained relations with the West during the during the Cold War. However, it was precisely because of his father’s erratic behaviour that many foreign investors preferred to deal with Saif Gaddafi. And so he, as the ostensibly more reliable heir apparent, traveled in high society, thanks largely to the oil wealth of his father’s government.

However, those well-connected friends appeared to have deserted Mr. Gaddafi by 2011, when he was captured whilst attempting to flee through the Libyan desert to neighboring Niger. During the Arab Spring uprising, Mr. Gaddafi was a part of his father’s inner circle and is accused of being at the forefront of the efforts to suppress protests. He is accused of advocating the use of deadly force which led to hundreds of deaths as government troops and protesters clashed in the Green Square. The International Criminal Court (ICC) subsequently concluded that his alleged involvement would constitute a crime against humanity and, in June 2011, issued a warrant for the arrest of Saif Gaddafi along with his father and other members of their inner circle.

In November of the same year, when the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Batallion captured Mr. Gaddafi, they  “vow[ed] to hold him in … Zintan until there [was] a government to hand him over to” but in the six years since that day, no such government has appeared to their satisfaction, and so Mr. Gaddafi stayed in the remote mountain town of Zintan until he was unexpectedly liberated last week.

After his arrest in 2011, both the ICC and the interim government in Tripoli had claimed the right to try Mr. Gaddafi. The ICC’s case, however, was quickly impeded as the Rome Statute of the ICC bars the Court from conducting trials in absentia; though the Office of the Prosecutor repeatedly appealed for Mr. Gaddafi to be extradited to the Hague, no such action was ever forthcoming. Mr. Gaddafi was, however, put on trial in Tripoli in absentia. His captors skyped him into the courtroom via a video link. The trial began in 2014, but was delayed until 2015 after a power struggle in the government split the country politically. In July 2015, in a trial considered “unfair” by the UN and the ICC, Mr. Gaddafi was sentenced to death by the UN backed government in the eastern part of the country.

The prospects for Saif Gaddafi looked grim. With the knowledge that, across half of his country at least, he was a condemned man, his own father’s grisly death must have been weighing heavily on his mind. Yet the supposed death warrant never arrived in the small town of Zintan. As in a foretelling of things to come, it was widely claimed in the Summer of 2016 that Saif Gaddafi had been freed after a bill was passed by one of the other Libyan governments, the House of Representatives (HoR), which provided amnesty for many individuals accused of crimes under Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. However, this bill specifically precluded amnesty for Colonel Gaddafi’s relatives, so regardless of what degree of legality it had, it would not have applied to Saif Gaddafi anyway. The reports of Mr. Gaddafi’s release in 2016 were quickly disputed, as sources came forward to claim that Mr. Gaddafi was still in Zintan. However, as no “independent international observer” has actually laid eyes on the man since 2014 these claims were never officially verified.

Then a fortnight ago, the cry went up again on media platforms – “Gaddafi has been released!” – and this time, by the very armed group which had held Gaddafi in Zintan since 2011. According to Al-Jazeera, “The armed group has issued a statement on its Facebook page saying that it has recently released Saif al-Islam Gaddafi upon request from the House of Representatives (HoR), the parliament that is based in the eastern city of Tobruk.” Although the HoR government is not the UN-backed faction, it is apparently the one that the Zintan militia defer to.

Since this announcement last week, the ICC and UN, as well as numerous international human rights groups, have again called for Mr. Gaddafi to face trial for crimes against humanity in the Hague. His lawyer, however, has stated that as “he could play an important part in national reconciliation efforts” Mr. Gaddafi will not be turning himself in to the ICC in The Hague.

Since 2010, Saif Gaddafi has seen his world transform many times. From international playboy, to sentenced criminal, to now: either an international fugitive, or a peace maker. What role will Saif Gaddafi choose to play in the ongoing political struggles in Libya? If he eludes arrest by the ICC it will be another black mark against the international institution which has spent a decade struggling to arrest powerful political players in Africa. If he takes up arms with a political faction and claims his position as his father’s heir he could prove a unifying figure, or the center of a continuing maelstrom of unrest. And what of his old high society friends? How many would be willing to support a power play should his ambitions lead him that way? Whichever way he decides to jump, Saif Gaddafi has the potential to engender a Libyan peripeteia in the near future.

Clair Maleney is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by Abode of Chaos